If film and TV are to be believed, Summer Camp is one of America’s most iconic pastimes. A time when children don’t have any parents to scold them, and they can explore some of the trickier aspects of life (love, loss, homesickness, etc) in a relatively safe place.
Wet Hot American Summer takes these themes and runs with them, creating a well-crafted pastiche that sends up both genres of 80’s teen drama and comedy in a loving way, and spinning a delightfully light-hearted tale of love, loss and potential destruction.
Wet Hot American Summer is set on the final day of camp, the talent show is in the evening, and some of the older campers are hooking up, or trying to hook up, before they all go back home. Of course that all depends on whether or not some of the nerdier campers along with an astrophysics professor can prevent a part of NASA’s Skylab from crashing into the camp. What follows is a rather zany affair, with plenty of teenaged angst and awkwardness.
Possibly the most appealing aspect of the film is the cast. When it was filmed back in 2001, many of them weren’t quite the famous faces they are today, but the amount of comedic talent that it showcased back then is astounding. Featuring the likes of Paul Rudd (Ant-Man), Bradley Cooper (Guardians of the Galaxy), Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation) and so many more, a large part of the initial comedy is drawn from the actors playing roles that they are clearly several years too old for, especially when combined with the gaggle of actual children in minor roles as other camp-goers.
As well as a group of twenty-somethings playing sixteen year olds, there are plenty of older actors playing the roles of the camp staff, with Janeane Garofalo (Dogma) as Head of Camp, Beth, and David Hyde-Pierce (Frasier) as Henry, an astrophysics professor who happens to be spending his summer at a property next to the camp, as well as being Beth’s love interest. Their brief period of wooing is interspersed with trips into town to study the others’ interests and scientific explanations about the falling piece of Skylab. Alongside them are a whole host of other dysfunctional counsellors, such as the arts and crafts teacher going through a messy divorce and a chef with PTSD from Vietnam who talks to an advice-giving can of soup.
The film takes a little while to warm up, but when it does, the jokes come thick and fast. Everything about the movie smacks of the 1980’s, from the clothes that are being worn to the filter on the camera giving off a warm glow to the whole affair, a necessity due to rain on set practically every day of the shoot.
Wet Hot American Summer received very mixed reviews when it first came out, but since then it has seen a resurgence as a cult classic. The humour itself isn’t for everyone, but when it hits the right notes, it is raucously hilarious. Alongside the Netflix exclusive prequel that came out in 2015, which built upon the initial characters, introduced (and then hastily removed) new ones and generally maintained the madcap insanity that pervaded through the original film, WHAS is a fantastic series, with lots of great actors. You’d be a fool to miss it!