Wet Hot American Summer is set during the very last day of an eight-week summer camp. The place is Camp Firewood; the year is 1972. Rather than sticking with one primary plot structure, this entire day is shown to be comprised of many different stories within the young campers, the teenage counselors, and the older camp directors. Tales of love, sex, and all-around shenanigans are detailed as this collection of individuals try to make the very best of the last bits of summer at their disposal.
Now, this may sound like just another raunchy teen comedy, and the external premise of the film certainly presents itself as so. However, I think Wet Hot American Summer is something a little more special. I think the humor here is some of the best, most funniest to come out of 21st century teen comedies. This is because its witticisms arrive completely out of left field, unannounced and unpredictable. There’s a really absurd montage scene about a third of the way in, where the camp supervisors (most of them around their late-20s/30s) are shown briefly leaving the camp site to engage in prostitution and heavy, intense drug use… only to arrive back minutes later, completely unfazed. Just when you think you have a grasp of your opinion of the film, the tables are turned and all sense of logic and conventional development are completely warped.
Performers that I wouldn’t normally offer a second glance to shine rather exceptionally in their roles here. Janeane Garofalo plays a camp director who falls in love with a nerdy college professor (David Hyde Pierce) and suddenly acquires a vast knowledge of astrophysics to impress him. Teenage Coop (Michael Showalter) has a crush on Katie (Marguerite Moreau), who is dating Andy (Paul Rudd); the love triangle that ensues is absurd and perplexing. There are quite a few other stories that are too numerous to name, and the film effectively pivots from tale to tale throughout its entirety, refusing to leave any ends untied (despite the circumstances). Other performers include Michael Ian Black, Bradley Cooper, Amy Pohler, and the notable Christopher Meloni, who plays a hallucinatory Vietnam war vet who, at a certain point, offers a stance as the voice of reason – via a talking can of vegetables.
It’s clear to see that the character development here is something that can’t exactly be seen through a typical lens of viewing. The script altogether is highly ironic, perhaps even satirical, with a slight tinge of dark humor. One of my favorite exchanges in the film is as follows:
“Hey, there’s a problem. I’ve got something I need to tell you.”
“Oh no! You have crabs.”
“No… Well, yeah, but that’s not the problem.”
It’s no use trying to make sense of characters’ motives or why things happen. Most of the time, they just happen simply to move the film along, at any and all costs. This film might as well be called Deus ex machina: The Movie. At the same time, however, it proudly wears this title, and is quite funny at the same time. It’s quite a special brand of humor, really. The likes of this could never be as successful in mainstream comedies. The secret to enjoying this film as much as possible is to let go of any and all inhibitions that may be holding you back. Behind its abrupt silliness is a special kind of charm that can rarely be found elsewhere, and while it certainly falls flat from time to time, its premise and delivery is fresh, and the viewing experience is as worthwhile as any other.