Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s TOGA! The Reinvention of American Comedy which runs from July 17th to August 29th at TIFF Bell Lightbox. For more information of this unprecedented film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
In our modern times of Blu-rays and instant streaming, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to define a successful film. While the studios refuse to look away from box-office numbers, the films that come to be revered by fans are minor blips that barely register to the studio heads. Those small independents that laugh in the face of traditional marketing have nearly no hope of filling the traditional cineplex on a first run. They thrive on word of mouth, riding a wave of incessant quoting and referenced non sequiturs. These films parade their titles of “flop” and “bomb” with reckless abandon as they march onward. They stumble into midnight screenings and growing DVD sales, and these once obscure films find a warm and welcoming hug. Wet Hot American Summer features a PTSD rattled soldier talking to a can of vegetables about dick cream; it knows exactly what it’s doing.
…the film doesn’t really pretend to have a plot. The closest thing resembling one is the day long journey that culminates in a talent show, but really the film is as concerned with the talent show as many of its watchers.
It’s the last day of summer at Camp Firewood. That means it’s your last day to do that one thing you’ve been putting off all summer. This is the culmination of your eight weeks spent away from home with a cabin full of strangers that you would come to call friends. This is more of the structure of Wet Hot American Summer, since the film doesn’t really pretend to have a plot. The closest thing resembling one is the day long journey that culminates in a talent show, but really the film is as concerned with the talent show as many of its watchers. It’s happening, we should be there, but let’s be honest, no one really cares about your inside jokes or broom balancing. The people are what are most important.
It is tempting to call the film parodic in nature, but it seems to be paying homage rather than spoof. The writers, David Wain and Michael Showalter, clearly have a deep abiding love for the 80s era summer camp comedy. They do not intend to make fun of the source, but rather revel in its ridiculousness while infusing their own sensibilities. It lives in the same family as Meatballs, Ernest Goes to Camp and Camp Nowhere, but it’s beating its own drum, like some kind of detached younger brother that lives to confuse his siblings. It is made for those that grew up during a period of summer camp fascination, when it wasn’t necessarily important to go to camp, but more so to watch a film about camp.
By transporting us directly to the end of summer, all of the relationships are established and storied. This is a choice that is initially a bit perplexing. Leaving the viewer amid a quagmire of character names and new faces, we are simply expected to be able to keep up. We need not bother with the pleasantries of getting to know each; director/co-writer David Wain throws us head first into the festivities and expects us to catch up. Any pretense of introduction is nowhere in sight. It robs the viewer of the possibility for any true initial investment. How can we care about anyone when we barely even know their names? This is why the film may have had trouble finding success as a trip to the theater, for this is hardly a film meant to be experienced only once.
Like many films that go on to establish a cult following, they offer the greatest rewards in repeat viewings. Even after one viewing we are so much more invested in the characters existence, coming to know them better.
Like many films that go on to establish a cult following, they offer the greatest rewards in repeat viewings. Even after one viewing we are so much more invested in the characters existence, coming to know them better. Character development notwithstanding, there are plenty more treasures to be garnered from additional watches. The loose structure of the film and the dizzying multitude of characters leave it often feeling like a series of loosely related vignettes. We hop from sketch to sketch, popping in on characters as the writers see fit. There are numerous storylines weaving in and out of each other like one of its camper’s handmade baskets. Each segment takes its ordinary setup, arts and crafts or a game of capture the flag, to ridiculous extremes. Often this makes for comedy that embraces and mocks its inspiration, but occasionally the comedy is overshot by the desire to shock. The writers and alums of The State, spill comedy all over the place like some kind of laughing litter bug. To locate all of the jokes within the film is a daunting task that requires numerous views. Certain punchlines hit harder with time and lines that once were lacking in giggles begin to overflow with full belly laughs. Despite the confounding lengths that the film puts its characters through, the entire cast is not only committed, but appear to be having a fantastic time. When viewed today the shear amount of comedy talent is astounding. Amy Poehler, Molly Shannon, Paul Rudd, Ken Marino, Janeane Garofalo, just to name a few. Many are still making us laugh today, and here they show their immediate skill, milking the funny from the smallest of roles. This is all said without even mentioning a turn from Christopher Meloni that’ll leave you questioning how he kept from turning Law & Order: SVU into an absurdist comedy.
Some will argue that Wet Hot American Summer’s monetary failure was due to it being ahead of its time, but truly the film was never destined for box-office success. The film is catered to a very specific set of comedy nerds that appreciate weird and offbeat humor. It often feels less like a film for all to enjoy and more like a gift to those that like to dig through bins for hidden treasures. Its lack of plot isn’t so much a hindrance, since its episodic nature magnifies its eminent rewatchability, but it keeps it from feeling like a truly fantastic film. The entire cast is not only fully onboard with this lovingly strange take on 80s summer camp, but appear to be having as good a time as any camper could. The film is proud of its ridiculous ways, as it very well should be. The laughs are as consistent as they are strange. To watch the film only once is to do it a disservice. This is a film that you should be required to rewatch before passing any judgment. The obvious jokes sustain, while the quieter ones sneak up on you. The biggest confusion over Wet Hot American Summer isn’t how it didn’t garner more ticket sales, but how they convinced someone to fund this goofy treasure.
[notification type=”star”]80/100 ~ GREAT. The laughs are as consistent as they are strange. To watch the film only once is to do it a disservice. This is a film that you should be required to rewatch before passing any judgment. The obvious jokes sustain, while the quieter ones sneak up on you.[/notification]