Monday, June 13, 2011

School's Out for Summer

This weekend didn't afford me any time to venture to the theater and see one of the few big screen releases I haven't yet seen (Midnight in Paris and Tree of Life will come soon), so it was up to Netflix to get me through the void. This time the film in question was another pick by Southland Dan, the 2001 camp comedy Wet Hot American Summer. I remember almost nothing about this film when it was first released, only the cartoonish movie poster and bad reviews that accompanied it. The same weekend Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes opened to the tune of $65 million, Wet Hot American Summer made less than the big screen re-release of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which I actually DID see. A critical and commercial failure, the film released in only twelve theaters across the country, drawing in less than $300 thousand. Created by members of one-time MTV comedy troupe The State, it eventually became a cult hit, mostly on the strength of its satire and all-star cast. Despite it being Dan's favorite film, I was unsure how to proceed. After all, Dan and I miss more often than we hit, and often the reason one of us likes a film is the reason the other hates it. There's a reason I refer to him as "Southland Dan" in the first place, and it isn't because of a film we agree on.

Just before her career went nowhere
Taking place in 1981 at Camp Firewood, a Jewish summer camp, the story (if you can call it that) follows the final day of camp activities before the campers go home to their parents and the counselors go home to theirs. Of the vast amount of input shown, there are two distinct storylines. In the first, Camp Director Beth (Janeane Garofalo) tries to capture the eye of associate professor Henry (David Hyde Pierce) who just happens to live near the campgrounds. In the second, nice guy counselor Coop (Michael Showalter) falls for camp hottie Katie (Marguerite Moreau), who is involved with bad-boy Andy (Paul Rudd). Both lead up (along with a half dozen non-sequiter asides) to the big talent show that caps off the final day of summer, which might also be the camp's last day of existence.

It's time to play: Name That Preppie!
Let's ignore the fact that this camp is run by the kind of teens who pretty much created Jason Voorhees, and that the film contains far too many stories to be encapsulated within a single day. That's obviously intended. In fact, it's obvious how inspired the filmmaking process was by sketch comedy, as most sequential scenes had little to nothing to do with one another, and often seem to break logic probes in their desire to tell the next joke. Sure, that's hardly a knock with this type of film, but it does make the whole thing feel disjointed and unbelievable. A little of that is okay; a lot of that spoils the milk.

Camp Firewood's entry-level Jedi program
The film does feature some funny stuff in between long pauses of wait, and of course almost none of it has anything to do with the main tale. Tops is easily Christopher Meloni as a disgruntled short-order cook who talks about surviving the Vietnam war and utters unintentional self-revelations to those around of him. If you ever wanted to see Law & Order: SVU's Elliot Stabler comment on his "dick cream" or announce that he's about to hump a refrigerator, then that would be more than enough to recommend this film. Other good scenes include sex-driven Victor (Ken Marino) undergoing off-screen heroics to save a raft full of kids, Andy (Rudd) disposing of witnesses to his supervisory negligence, and a scene in which many of the counselors visit the local town "if only for an hour". It's a shame that these scenes have far too much of a break between them, as the vast majority of the film is utterly unfunny, lacking even in interest.

Yes, this is a pre-stardom Elizabeth Banks. No, she was no good then, either.
The really sad thing is there simply wasn't much interesting for this talented cast to do. Future stars like Rudd, Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper and Elizabeth Banks mixed well with veterans like Molly Shannon and Michael Ian Black, but there simply wasn't enough for the various characters to perform. Some, like Rudd, were at least a part of the main story, while Shannon was segregated into her own private skit for much of the film to the benefit of no one. And it doesn't help that the funniest thing Janeane Garofalo ever did was associate with Ben Stiller. Am I the only one who doesn't get how she became a big star, even if it was only for a short while? I get the feeling that if Wet Hot American Summer had been produced as a regular television program instead of a motion picture, the storytelling would have worked much better, and the film's aimless approach to narration would have felt much smoother. Instead we have a movie that could have been funny being merely silly, and not always in a good way.

I don't think he likes where his hand has gone...
I suppose I should have seen this coming. Dan almost certainly should have seen this coming, but to be honest I'm not sure how he couldn't. I barely made it through Wet Hot American Summer, a poor film with some good bits that is more interesting for what came after it than the actual film product itself. There are some films that I can understand becoming cult hits; this isn't one of them. I know I'll have those who disagree with me on this, but I can't in good conscience recommend this to anyone, as it's not funny enough for comedy fans and not even the parody and satire aspects are good enough to recommend. If you have to see it, fast forward to the Chris Meloni scenes and a particularly humorous road trip. That's all you really need from this film, and even that's more than most people really deserve to see.


jimmygerms said...

So here we are again at an impasse, Mr. Anderson. 1st off, I disagree with the comment that we hit more than we miss. To further clarify, I WILL admit that the films your taste leads you to do not necessarily match man. I judge you simply on the films you CHOOSE to see, without actually having seen them myself in order to make a fair assessment. How is THAT not fair?
To be sure, we have watched only a handful of movies actually together, but the three I can think of off the top of my head (Somewhere, Super 8, Let Me In) we actually agreed immensely on all three. So here's the gauntlet I throw down on you. Now that I have challenged you to watch 2 movies, and you have done so (begrudgingly so), I ask that you now assign me with two flicks you feel I should see that you believe I would never watch otherwise. However, this is not meant for revenge. I picked those 2 movies because I thought there was a chance you may at least find some merit in them. This is not the time for you to say "HA! LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD and DRIVE ANGRY. HAVE AT IT BITCH!". I want you to do what I did pick movies you feel are overall underrated. The court is yours good sir. (p.s., the two movies mentioned the hypothetical quote above were so mentioned do to the fact that you paid good money to see that shit. Please remember that i'm on your side).

jimmygerms said...

p.p.s, to quote Willy Wonka regarding the seconds sentence in the previous post: Strike That-Reverse it.

Anonymous said...

Hey John,
It's OK to be wrong.
Good At Movies