Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Wet Hot American Summer (June 18 at midnight at the Capital Theatre)

Review by Charles Cassary Jr.

WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER received a benediction from that journal of taste and gratuitous Glee references, Entertainment Weekly magazine as a three-and-a-half star masterwork of film satire. Well, maybe on a scale of 1 to 7. I'm sorry, I really don't see the wonderfulness (I don't watch Glee either), even if several Shaker Heights expats had something to do with the film: debuting director and co-writer David Wain, music composer Craig Wedren and comic actress Molly Shannon. If EW mag had such excess affection for Shaker Heights, why didn't they show more love for the teen drama BATTLE OF SHAKER HEIGHTS?

WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER adds another genre to the pile of genre-movie parodies, one which most right-thinking citizens are barely aware exists: the B-picture schlock genre of the summer-camp teen sex- and slob-sploitation comedy. Yes, most jerkwater high schoolers in northeast Ohio in the late 70s/early 80s saw one or two and couldn't stop babbling about it the next day in the school locker room, but today they're all post-yuppie bosses and corporate bankruptcy-lawyers/downsizers and might only be able to admit to watching MEATBALLS with Bill Murray. I myself can't even name a handful of drive-in campground Z-comedies - maybe THE FIRST TURN-ON, GORP and UP THE CREEK.

But evidently nobody had yet called dibs on an official parody of this schlock, so here we go. Setting is Camp Firewood, rural Maine, circa 1981, where young-adult counselors in various shades of dork, nerd, nymphet and hormonal minors have one last day left for the summer session to sort out their various relationships and conflicts, over a memorable 24 hours. Longtime counselor Beth (Janeane Garofalo, who couldn't play dumb if she tried), a mature den-mother type, pines for the gawky Henry (David Hyde Pierce), a downcast astrophysicist stuck teaching science to the most outcast of the kids. Nebbish Coop (Michael Showalter) falls for the 16-year-old hottie Katie (Marguarite Moreau) and sees his chance at consummation due to the cold-hearted infidelities of her boyfriend, immature stud Andy (Paul Rudd). Whitewater-raft navigator Victor (Ken Marino) strives to keep his appointment to lose his virginity to the camp slut. Fragile teacher Gail (Molly Shannon) is in the agonies of her latest divorce. The camp cook, a psycho Viet Nam vet, hallucinates talking vegetable cans' It all builds up to a rather puzzling convergence of subplots during a campground talent show, with a tumbling piece of Skylab space station debris adding a chintzy note of jeopardy.

The early-80s vibe is rendered impeccably with kitschy production designs, regrettable fashions and soundtrack tunes, and I liked one or two bits of satire very much - the ensemble gets all worked up over a softball showdown against an evil rival "Camp Tiger Claw," then decide that storyline's been done too often and drop it completely. A montage of a party-druggy-happy excursion into town turns into a full-blown REQUIEM FOR A DREAM heroin-addiction nightmare before everyone returns to camp, all smiles again. But the problem with WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER, at least for me, is that much of this is pretty much exactly on the level of the material it's spoofing, a parody of something that was a thin parody already and lacking the pretension that's so much fun watching Leslie Nielsen puncture.

Yet, as previously noted, WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER tops the lists of some reviewers in cult immortality, so what do I know? Maybe I'm scarred for life because of the time I was stuck at summer camp with nothing but the latest issue of Mad Magazine to read. You ever tried to stretch out one Mad Magazine for a whole week of entertainment? I'll never do that again. (2 out of 4 stars)

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