Monday, April 9, 2012

Wet Hot American Summer

I don't watch a lot of comedies --- not because I don't like funny things so much as I get easily annoyed by things that are supposed to be funny, but are not.  The worst comedic offender (in my mind, anyway) is what passes for sketch comedy these days; even classic sketch comedy groups like Monty Python or Kids in the Hall are far more filler than killer, and Saturday Night Live probably has less than three hours of good material from their entire run.  Note: just because you can do an impression doesn't mean you're saying anything funny.  Not surprisingly, when a friend told me I should check out Wet Hot American Summer, I was skeptical.  The cast is filled with alumni from SNL and The State, it has a young Bradley Cooper, and it has Paul Rudd, who irritates me on a very basic level.  On the other hand, my first job was as a summer camp counselor, so maybe the writer/director of Role Models (which I was surprisingly okay with) came up with a comedic gem I had overlooked.
Or maybe I found a film to satisfy my short shorts fetish

Since Wet Hot American Summer is a spoof, the plot is both stupid and terribly unimportant.  Basically, it's the last day at Camp Firewood Jewish summer camp in 1981.  Shy nice guy counselor Coop (Michael Showalter) wants to impress his dream girl and fellow counselor, Katie (Marguerite Moreau), and get her to leave her asshole boyfriend (Paul Rudd).  Of course, being an 80s spoof, the only way to accomplish this is through a training montage.  Meanwhile, local stud muffin Victor (Ken Marino) has to figure out how to take some campers on an overnight rafting trip while simultaneously having sexy time with a horny and less than subtle girl.  While that is going on, Susie (Amy Poehler) and Ben (Bradley Cooper) are trying to put on the best talent show the camp has ever seen, and they take their job very seriously.
This was over the top until Dance Moms came around
And then there is the subplot involving two friends trying to figure out why they've never seen their buddy (Michael Ian Black) macking on the ladies.  Finally, there is the kind of framing story of the head counselor, Beth (Janeane Garofalo), falling in love with an astrophysics professor (David Hyde Pierce) and having to save the camp from a falling chunk of NASA debris.
SPOILER: He saves them with the power of his 'stache

The acting isn't very important in Wet Hot American Summer.  Every character is essentially a one-note caricature of teen movies from the 80s.  As far as that goes, the cast is fine and they play their parts pretty well.  As far as I'm concerned the standouts were Paul Rudd's (I hate to admit it) great work as the gleefully horrible boyfriend and Christopher Meloni as the crazy Vietnam vet, if only because it is so different from anything else I've seen him in.
I don't know who made this, but it is 8 bits of glorious
The rest of the cast was okay, although I wasn't too thrilled with the obviousness of Molly Shannon's and Amy Poehler's subplots.  There were just an absolute ton of recognizable actors in this movie, and most of them had relatively small parts.  Elizabeth Banks was a disturbingly dirty skank, Joe Lo Truglio was underused, Kyle Gallner made his theatrical debut, and I'm sure there were another dozen or so people you would recognize if you liked The State.

Of course, this isn't the sort of movie that was ever going to wow anyone with its acting.  This is a dumb comedy, so the writing and directing should be more important.  David Wain directed and co-wrote this movie with Michael Showalter (Coop).  As far as that goes, Wet Hot American Summer probably won't surprise you.  It looks and feels like the work of sketch comedians, possibly because it is a series of loosely related sketches.  That's not a terrible thing; Wain manages to avoid that all too common SNL-movie pitfall of mistaking a a silly premise for 90+ minutes of comedy gold.  Yes, there is a stupid premise in place.  Yes, there are some not very funny conceptual jokes running throughout the film, like the ages of these "teenage" counselors.  That doesn't matter, though.  This is a movie that knows it is shallow and stupid and tries to make you laugh with what it has to offer. 
Like training montages
Unfortunately, this movie's offerings didn't impress me.  I will admit that there is a certain amount of clever charm in this stupid comedy, but it didn't veer enough in either direction to satisfy me.  It isn't clever enough to be witty and it isn't dumb enough to make you laugh in spite of yourself.
Example: this could have been caused by a super glue mishap, but noooo...!
I chuckled at a few bits, but I saw most of the punchlines coming a mile away; even when I was surprised, the payoff was minor.  Since the characters are so shallow, I didn't care about anyone in the film.  Now, I would be totally okay with that if the sketches focused more on the punchlines than on having douchebags perfect the tone of Meatballs.  Oh, well.
"Nailed it!"

I went into this with low expectations, and many of them, unfortunately, were met.  I still don't find Molly Shannon or Amy Poehler funny.  Paul Rudd still irritates me, although I have noticed that the less of a normal guy he plays, the more I like him.  I also realized that Michael Ian Black, who is capable of delivering one-liners, apparently needs other people to deliver his jokes for him in sketches.  And despite a brief period where people cast her in movies, Janeane Garofalo has never been much of an actress, typically playing the same basic character over and over again in every film.
I wonder if she's going to say something sarcastic

Despite all that, I actually didn't dislike Wet Hot American Summer.  It's a light-hearted, dumb comedy that pays tribute to some classic teen flicks that were never all that good to begin with.  This isn't a bad comedy; it just underachieves.  I spent some time pondering why I was more or less indifferent to this film, but kind of liked David Wain's more recent (and successful) movie, Role Models.  According to my exhaustive analysis, there are two key differences.  First, Wet Hot American Summer is completely lacking in-depth explanations of the KISS songbook, and that is a missed opportunity.  Second, that movie actually had a plot and character development.  That can make all the difference.  If this film went for broke with the stupidness and turned out a brainless jem in the tradition of Airplane! or Kentucky Fried Movie, I would have been all for it.  Instead, it half-asses an inconsequential plot and winds up making only about half the jokes it probably should have.

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