Movie Review: Wet Hot American Summer

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A group of counsellors settle unfinished business on the last day of summer camp in 1981.

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David Wain, 2001

After spending all summer at camp, awkward teen counsellor Coop (Michael Showalter) is finally ready to tell the beautiful Katie (Marguerite Moreau) that he has feelings for her. This is complicated slightly by the fact that Katie has a boyfriend, callous bad boy Andy (Paul Rudd), who is cheating on her with half the camp while ignoring the kids he’s supposed to be looking after. Meanwhile, camp manager Beth (Janeane Garofalo) just wants the attention of Professor Henry Newman (David Hyde Pierce), who has more important, potentially deadly scientific matters on his mind. Victor (Ken Marino) keeps his virginity a secret, while counsellor McKinley (Michael Ian Black) and theatre director Ben (Bradley Cooper) have a secret of their own. Ben and co-director Susie (Amy Poehler) struggle to put together the big talent show amidst the chaos.

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I’ve seen this movie and can’t tell you who half of these people are supposed to be.

I have to admit, I watched this for exactly two reasons: there was a Netflix show coming up that is a prequel to this film which has an appearance from Chris Pine, and the cast is good. It’s a whopper of a cast – other famous names not listed above who appear in the movie include Elizabeth Banks, Joe Lo Truglio, Molly Shannon, and Christopher Meloni (who commits so well that he’s easily the most memorable character). The show’s cast is even bigger. It’s a great looking film, too – the period setting and the gorgeous locations work in its favour. It’s got a fun, kicky soundtrack. The thing is, this film’s humour just isn’t my thing. It’s all about carrying on a joke slightly longer than is funny, or taking it to an extreme. This usually leaves a scene hanging awkwardly for a while before moving on to the next scene, even though this movie is jam-packed. To be honest, I was more interested in the story than the comedy, even though these actors are very funny. Some of the best gags involve making fun of the fact that these are all clearly much older actors playing teenagers – Paul Rudd gets a lot of mileage out of that (despite his agelessness) by playing Andy to his obnoxious extreme. Michael Showalter is frankly hard to watch, though, and I actually had to skip one of the Molly Shannon scenes because I was so uncomfortable with her storyline.

Then there’s the Ben & McKinley storyline. It’s only given a few minutes in the movie, but it’s one of the only stories that is largely played straight, pun unintended. The scene where they first kiss is a show stopper. It’s tender and chock full of off-the-charts chemistry, and it feels like it’s lifted from another movie. Even in their later scenes, the jokes are about how other people are acting, rather than them (and they’re characterised by a sweetness that the rest of the film lacks). It’s strange, and it makes me wish there was an entire movie just about them. Those scenes sit so oddly between scenes of callous disregard for children’s lives and slut-shaming, though. It’s a weird balance, and I’m not convinced the film completely strikes it right. I did laugh occasionally, though, and it’s definitely a well-made film, so if awkward humour is your thing, give it a shot.

Wet Hot American Summer on IMDb

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