When I was a tween, I absolutely hated camp. I hated the bugs. I hated the stale food. I hated the rank-smelling bunks. I hated the group activities that required us to hike. I hated the mandatory rope courses. I hated the pee-filled pools. I hated the only-three-years-older-than-us counselors on a power trip. I hated the boondoggle. Come to think of it, the only thing I did like about camp was the fact that it looked awesome in the movies.
Every summer since I can remember, I have made it my mission to find a new summer camp movie (scary, or funny) to fall in love with. It was never very hard because really, there is such a ridiculous amount of superbly campy camp movies out there, you could practically dedicate a whole section of a videostore to them. Meatballs. Heavyweights. Camp Nowhere. Sleepaway Camp. Friday the 13th. Camp. Little Darlings. The first half of the LiLo version of The Parent Trap. They’re all perfect rainy summer day fare (or, if you’re an indoor kid like me, straight-up summer afternoon fare). But if I had to pick movie to take on the role of director of the summer camp movie section of my heart, it would most definitely be the hot mess that is Wet Hot American Summer. <
I know, I know, pervs. It sounds like a really cheesy porno from the 70s. But it’s actually more like a really cheesy sex comedy from the 80s that makes fun of everyone, including itself. To put it in sleepaway camp terms, Wet Hot American Summer is the dry comedy equivalent of a hot s’more on a Wednesday night. It doesn’t seem quite right, but it so is.
The movie takes us back to 1981, where campers, counselors and activities captains are celebrating/mourning the last day of their summer at Camp Firewood. Over the course of the day, they do what every camp does before saying goodbye for the year: play capture the flag, have a talent show, almost play in a camp-to-camp softball tourney, go hiking, have an afternoon swim, make-out in the forest, go on a midday cocaine run, hold a gay wedding in the lake and fend off a renegade piece of the SKYLAB space station heading for the camp rec room using a Dungeons and Dragons die.
Yeah, Wet Hot American Summer is not your typical, straight-up summer fun camp movie. It’s more like an end-of-summer themed Christopher Guest (This is Spinal Tap, Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman) mockumentary, minus the one-camera shooting and Eugene Levy cameos. Everything is just a little too out-of-control to be realistic, but done in such a ridiculously deadpan way that you can’t help but laugh hysterically. Like when lunch dude, Gene (Chris Meloni of Law & Order: SVU) tells his cafeteria helper that he’s going to go “fondle his sweaters” when he really means “fondue some cheddar” (or does he?).
In addition to Meloni, who almost steals the show as a fridge-humping weirdo, the movie features some of the funniest people ever. There’s a few 90s favourites (Janeane Garafalo, David Hyde Piece, Molly Shannon), pretty much everyone who is big in comedy right now (Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Bradley Cooper [as a gay counselor!], Elizabeth Banks, 30 Rock‘s Judah Friedlander) and some of my favourite not-as-popular-as-they-should-be awkward funny guys (Michael Showalter, Michael Ian Black, Ken Marino [Party Down]). The way-too-talented cast looks like they had a blast overacting their way through their purposely over-the-top story, which makes it even more hilarious to watch. At one point, Garafalo almost pulls a Jimmy Fallon, muffling some obviously raging guffaws as she improvises a list of Jewish camper names. In any other movie, it would come off as amateur, but in this it just seems like another part of the fucking brilliant fun.
When it comes down to it, Wet Hot American Summer is really about taking the piss out of 80s guilty pleasure montages and over-emoting. Over the course of the 97-minute flick, we get treated to satirical takes on horror-themed summer camp movies (cue Garafalo running around the main office, yelling “The call is coming from inside the camp!!”), slow-motion chase scenes (Marino jumps over a bale of hay dramatically), coming-of-age romances (Showalter’s character swaps shrunken sweaters and flannels with crush for five minutes) and montages of self-discovery (Showalter runs around camp in short-shorts, running-mans his heart out in front of the dance-cabin mirror and attends a therapy session to the tune of “Higher and Higher” in an attempt to learn Gene’s “new way”). And that’s just a taste of the subversive awesomeness.
But like overnight Bible camp, Wet Hot American Summer isn’t for everyone. If you’re afraid of purposely awful puns, relentless fake laughing, Paul Rudd in douche-mode, January-December romances (think J. Biebs meets Mrs. Robinson), secret pizza parties in the woods or canned veggies giving philosophical advice (seriously), you’re better off spending your indoor time rewatching your VHS of Jaws this summer. But if any of those things sound ridiculously hilarious to you, strap on your neon-sweatband, well-worn friendship bracelets and vintage Levi’s cutoffs and get your pasty pre-Canada-day ass over to this grown-up, indoor kid’s unofficial camp ground: the videostore.