Silver Screen, Silver Tongue: Wet Hot American Summer is Bucolic

wet010adBy Magellan

About the Film

Year: 2001
Cast: Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, Michael Showalter, Marguerite Moreau
Director: David Wain
Rotten Tomatoes: 31%

About the Word

Definition: bu·col·ic [byoo-kol-ik] adj.– of, pertaining to, or suggesting an idyllic rural life.

The Review

Summer, for all it’s worth, is officially over. It’s Labor Day weekend, the last day of August, “Back to School” season is upon us, and I just watched Wet Hot American Summer, a now-annual tradition of mine that I didn’t get around to until today. Sure, you could argue that the equinox isn’t for another twenty-something days, but I don’t know anybody who relishes those first couple weeks of September the way they relished those same weeks in July. Things just aren’t the same.

But, I’m sure you’re wondering why I would sit down and watch Wet Hot American Summer every year, beyond it having the name of the season in the title. After all, it’s ostensibly just a heavy-handed pastiche of summer camp movies with a few absurd, surrealist moments to grab for laughs and qualify it as a “comedy.” And, judging by its score on Rotten Tomatoes, any critic worth his or her salt will tell you that it doesn’t even deserve that distinction. So why watch it once, let alone once a year? Well, I could throw the whole “comedy is subjective” argument at you, but it goes deeper than that. I like to return to this film for the same reason that college students like to go home for the summer: it’s a chance to feel like things haven’t changed.

For me, the charm of Wet Hot American Summer isn’t in the jokes themselves, but in the way that this cast brings them to life. The movie takes place on the last day of summer camp, and features a skilled set of comedic actors playing the camp counselors: Michael Showalter, Paul Rudd, Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio, Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, Molly Shannon, and Michael Ian Black to name more than a few. Not to mention Janeane Garofalo as the camp director and Christopher Meloni (from Law & Order: SVU) as the creepy cafeteria worker. These are actors that moved on to great things in the world of comedy and film, and it’s great to see them back in their salad days, hanging out and having a good time. Just looking at the movie and its reception among the general populace, you can tell that it wasn’t any of these people’s cash cow, but rather a labor of love.

Scenes in this movie hit and miss, but that’s not a bad thing. Jokes told with friends hit and miss too, with some punchlines landing and some falling flat. It doesn’t matter, though, because when you’re with friends you can just hop back up on your feet and keep riffing. This movie has that same friendly, casual energy about it, as if it knows that it doesn’t need to try being funny, that it can make any joke it wants, play with the characters however it wants, because the entire cast already loves the final product. And, it’s that laid-back, summer-camp vibe that makes this movie so likable and easy to revisit. It’s what lets me forgive and even love some of its more outlandish, surrealist segments (such as the “going into town” montage, where the counselors go from eating ice cream to shooting heroin in a matter of minutes, then return to the camp and remark that “It’s always fun to get away from camp, even for an hour.”). In fact, half of the joy of this movie is using it as a way to sit back and have fun with your own friends, supplanting usual, high school “remember-when”s with “Remember when Ken Marino’s character was being chased by Joe Lo Truglio’s on a motorcycle, but Lo Truglio couldn’t get past that random hay bale in the road?” or “Remember when Paul Rudd’s character threw that tantrum when he was cleaning up his plate?” or especially “Remember when Christopher Meloni’s character talked to that can of vegetables and then had a dramatic training montage with Michael Showalter’s character?” It’s a movie that worms its way into your reminiscences and becomes a part of the world and the state of mind that you call home.

This movie enters your memory and lives there the way real summers do. When I watched this movie earlier today, I was surprised by how many of the slower moments I had completely forgotten, while certain other moments (like Elizabeth Banks trying to make out with Paul Rudd while her face is coated in barbecue sauce) remained indelible, as if I had experienced them myself, mere hours before. Every time I watch this movie, it becomes more idyllic and perfect in my mind’s eye, as the less-than-perfect scenes are filtered out, and my favorite scenes are strengthened and exaggerated. That’s just how fond memories work, really. We’ve all had things from our childhood stick in our mind, like a place that we really enjoyed visiting, or a game that we’re sure had much better graphics when we were ten. Granted, I didn’t watch this movie when I was a kid, but it almost feels like I did. When I watched Wet Hot American Summer today, I wasn’t watching it with fresh eyes. I was remembering the next moment before it happened, and so was the movie itself.  The entire cast and I were equal storytellers. They weren’t part of the movie, but part of the discussion of “remember-when.” Watching Wet Hot American Summer will never again be a present, vivid experience. It will forever be a grainy picture of a joke that made me spew water out my nose at the elementary school lunch table, an echo of a steady stream that I used to dip my feet in as a kid, a waft of crisp, summer air blowing through my backyard. This film is a memory on the screen, a reminder of halcyon days, of calm, careless perfection free from criticism and judgment. Wet Hot American Summer is bucolic.

Here’s the trailer for the film:

And this is a great scene with Paul Rudd:

Another one with Ken Marino:

No discussion of this movie would be complete without my favorite training montage:



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