“Hey, let's all promise that in 10 years from today, we'll meet again, and we'll see what kind of people we've blossomed into.”
The absurdist comedy troupe known as The State earned a fair cult following with their '90s MTV show of the same name, but not enough to get Wet Hot American Summer -- directed by David Wain and starring many of the troupe’s members -- more than a modest theatrical release and a middling critical reception in late July of 2001.
Thankfully, it seems that time has only been kinder to one of my favorite comedies from the past decade (no, maybe not one of the very best, but high among my personal faves). It’s an affectionate send-up of '80s summer camp romps like Meatballs, not to mention the era’s regrettable fashion trends. The skewering of underdog sports clichés, horny teen staples, and Vietnam-trauma melodrama is long overdue and perfectly irreverent in execution.
Wain juggles an exceptionally game ensemble that includes Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, Christopher Meloni, Amy Poehler, and a then-unknown Bradley Cooper, and together, every last character thread is escalated to maximum effect.
Nice guy Coop (Showalter) is this close to getting the girl and instantly takes that too far, hearing wedding bells when she’s just looking for a fling. When teacher Gail (Molly Shannon) vents to her class about her own marital woes, one young boy in particular sagely consoles her … to the point where they announce their own January-May romance come the end of camp. And when camp manager Beth (Garofalo) falls for astrophysicist neighbor Henry (Pierce), they top everyone with an immaculate conception, just because.
When the counselors go on a day trip into town, they manage a crime spree and record amounts of substance abuse over the course of what we learn was a mere hour. Our narrator (played by Liam Norton, but voiced by Samm Levine) is lambasted for not having showered for all eight weeks of summer, but sadder/funnier still is the reveal that poor Arty’s been talking into an unplugged microphone the entire time. Ultimately, a falling piece of SkyLab threatens the fate of the campers (yes, really), and who saves the day but a socially awkward deus ex machina who just happened to have powers beyond belief.
It’s all so gleefully manic, alternately astute with regards to coming-of-age formula and utterly ridiculous. Rudd’s ultra-obnoxious routine is priceless, and if you can find a movie with a more quotable can of vegetables, then keep it to yourself. Even now, Wain and friends have floated the idea out there of doing a prequel that would see the whole cast return, now older than ever in roles that would require them to be younger. If they do manage to make it, I hope it doesn’t take an additional 10 years to get the gang back together, and then another 10 on top of that just to find its rightful audience.
In the meantime, I’ll be back at my bunk, fondling my sweaters.