For his first review here at 10ya, Bill Lascher reaches back to simpler, sweeter, funnier times with David Wain’s cult hit. You can read more of his work at Lascher @ Large (lascheratlarge.com). Also, fonduuuuue cheddar.
Oh fuck my cock! I have a review to write.
A decade ago, I spent the summer between my junior and senior years of college wandering about my hometown in a 1996 Toyota Corolla. Most of my time was spent delivering pizza, listening to the heyday of Santa Monica’s KCRW and shaking off the first signs of what would soon become the end of my first true love.
Just a few weeks from my last year of college, amid the waning days of the pre-9/11 world, I heard an improbable film promo: Wet Hot American Summer. I was intrigued, if not by starring roles for Janeane Garofalo (who I’d been crushing on for years) and David Hyde Pierce, then just by the sound of the film’s title spoken by the NPR affiliate’s well-hearsed announcer. The title seemed ballsy in a manner I’d never blink at today. Oh, how innocent we were.
It was hard to find friends to watch the film with me. (Just try telling friends who haven’t seen it that you love Wet Hot American Summer without clarifying that it’s not porn.) I finally did at a friend’s apartment a few months later. What I would give to see again the look of shock among my viewing companions as the film’s butt-rock charged intro roared through their decidedly analog TV speakers. A crowd of prudish liberal arts students just about to graduate from one of the nation’s foremost political correctness factories, we graduated amid the emergence of the current ironic-hipster movement. For this audience, the sleazy fireside debauchery of the opening credits combined explosively with the early 80s styling of Wet Hot American Summer‘s titles and costumes (a sensory overload not diminished by the accompaniment of certain college-age indulgences).
I’m not a terrific critic of modern culture (or culture from any era). I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of actors’ and filmmakers’ oeuvres. So don’t read this reflection for nuanced mapping of the cast’s connections to the Stella and State comedy troupes or what not (Google tells me the movie was a smash at Sundance – that explains the presence on KCRW). All you need to know, though, is that ten years after WHAS‘s release, I still anticipate every single line, and, yet, each still arrives fresh as that first night.
Not because Wet Hot American Summer is shocking, and least, not in terms of subject matter. But in style, perhaps it really is. I’m stunned that I can be so moved by a comedy. I’m stunned that as ridiculous as the film might be, it stirs not just my nostalgia for 80s films, but even for summer camp, for crushes and unrequited flirtations, and for those college days themselves. As soon as the credits give way to the lazy humming of the film’s score and the last day at Camp Firewood begins, I succumb to the very emotionalism WHAS satirizes. But I think that’s the point. The extremes writers Michael Showalter and David Wain (also the director) take the plot might be ridiculous, and the free rein Wain affords to his cast to improvise don’t subtract from the tenderness with which the film treats its subject: ridiculously, uh, campy 80s summer camp movies.
By no means should you take Wet Hot American Summer seriously, but by no means should you dismiss it. One of the things that I recall from that first viewing was the film’s pace. Something is always happening in Wet Hot American Summer, and it’s almost always hilarious. But it’s almost always tender, as well.
And clever. I’m not going to belabor points that could be made about how the film addresses the gender and sexual assumptions and stereotypes of early 80s pulp cinema through raw satire. That’s all right there on the table. Still, the film somehow reserves some room to also celebrate youthful sexual exploration.
And love. It’s worth noting that despite lots of kissing, the only sex (okay, besides the cook’s frottage with a refrigerator) hinted at in the film is a soft, loving exchange in a sun-lit shack between Michael Ian Black’s McKinley and Bradley Cooper’s Ben, who later wed, clad in hippie attire, in a ridiculous riparian marriage officiated by Garofalo’s Beth, the camp’s director. Though the wedding is presented as a secret occasion that could put the lovers at risk, the surprising warmth with which they’re eventually welcomed (if humorously so) further deepens the film.
Or consider the flirtation between Garofalo’s Beth, the camp director, and Pierce’s Henry, an astrophysics professor (er, tragically, as we later learn, associate-professor) improbably living in a cabin seemingly on the Camp Firewood grounds. As over-the-top as the arc of their romance may be – in one day they meet, flirt, devise excuses to see one another, celebrate career triumphs, plan to move in together and overcome their struggle to parent a child – they play their attraction with the honest, awkward bumbling many of us feel at the start of a relationship. That sort of honesty is shared by all the actors, and I can go on about the entire film’s charms (I haven’t even mentioned the drug-binge-fueled musical montage visit to “town”), but I say with no hyperbole that it’s just too good not to watch it yourself. I might struggle with this review, but I can still recognize the rare chemistry between the actors.
That chemistry, of course, imbues the entire film. Much of its magic comes from the sense, if not the reality, that the entire cast delighted in making this movie. So when we see the Camp Firewood staff plan to return 10 years later, we feel the actors want to make that return.
As a viewer, I do as well, though I have the luxury of returning, whenever I want, to that moment ten years ago when everything was funny.