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FILM REVIEW: WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER
By Robert K. Elder
Chicago Tribune Staff Reporter
In a year or maybe even sooner "Wet Hot American Summer" will be one of those late-night cable films that you watch dozingly, unable to turn off this summer-camp spoof because of its tendency to blindside you with offbeat, altered-reality jokes.
For its run on the big screen, however, this low-budget comedy will most likely try the patience of a paying audience with its uneven pacing, wavering tone and poor production quality.
A parody of the summer camp genre (see exemplar "Meatballs"), "Wet Hot American Summer" is set in 1981, during the final day of the season at Maine's Camp Firewood. While everyone prepares for the "big talent show," unfinished business and the sexual frustrations of the staff boil over into interlocking story lines.
Head counselor Beth (Janeane Garofalo) reveals her crush on Henry (David Hyde Pierce), an awkward astrophysics assistant professor who spends his summer near her camp. Meanwhile, ugly-duckling camp counselor Coop (co-writer and co-producer Michael Showalter) pines for cutie Katie (Marguerite Moreau); Vietnam vet and camp chef Gene (Christopher Meloni) comes to terms with his sexual idiosyncrasies; and unstable teacher Gail (Molly Shannon) gets some divorce counseling from her arts-and-crafts class.
Like a camp suitcase bursting at the seams, the film crams in even more subplots and characters, and director David Wain sits on it all as best he can. There are patches of severely unfunny dialogue and lame "Look, we have no budget" jokes. During one motorcycle chase, Wain doesn't match his stuntman to his actor and then scores a few laughs off the obvious actor/stuntman switch. Later, Coop actually slips on a banana peel and gets his foot stuck in a bucket. Poking fun at this dusty vaudeville humor, however, doesn't invoke any laughter on its own.
Unpredictable weather contributes to continuity problems (it's raining one second and sunny the next), and the film suffers from a comedic split personality. Fresh and unpredictable one minute (see the "day on the town" montage that turns into a drug-induced bender), it's horribly off the next (Gene's sexual confession to the cafeteria crowd, after which he molests a refrigerator). There's a hilarious motif in which an irresponsible camp counselor keeps losing kids and therefore must eliminate their "camp buddies" to even things out. But nothing else comes close to being this edgy or darkly comic.
Garofalo, understated and adorable as Beth, and Pierce top the cast (with his thick mustache and chest hair and incongruously wiry frame, he looks like a Village People reject), while relative unknowns flesh out the rest of the camp. Showalter, a former member of MTV's "The State" comedy show, is easy to root for as Coop, as he and Shannon give nice performances in this C movie that aspires to be a B movie.
And it almost succeeds. References to Dungeons and Dragons, video games and Betamax fuel the nostalgia factor in a genre parody that feels a decade too late.
"Wet Hot American Summer"
Directed by David Wain; written by Michael Showalter and Wain; photographed by Ben Weinstein; edited by Meg Reticker; production designed by Mark White; produced by Howard Bernstein. A USA Films release; opens Friday, Aug. 31. Running time: 1:37. MPAA rating: R (strong sexual content, language and a drug sequence).
Beth Janeane Garofalo
Henry David Hyde Pierce
Coop Michael Showalter
Katie Marguerite Moreau
Andy Paul Rudd
J.J. Zak Orth
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