The book of my life would have a good portion devoted to college. So much of the person I am today was molded by those years of debaucherous youth. Most of my friendships, most of my favorite memories, many of my firsts. And as the distance grows, so does the nostalgia. All the ridiculous moments and inside jokes seem more colorful in hindsight, and if there is anything about David Wain‘s Wet Hot American Summer that seems unflawed, it’s this same concept. Like almost no other movie, Wet Hot achieves its real distinction in the joy of repeated viewings. More than twenty if you really want to do it right. Bizarre absurdity, which much of this movie banks on, becomes less offensive as it grows more familiar. Not unlike the average college experience.
Wet Hot is the story of a Jewish Summer Camp, and it’s epic final day. The counselors, mostly high-school stereotypes, all have their own agendas for this summer of ’81 swan song. From Victor Pulak (Ken Marino) and his struggle against virginity, to camp director Beth’s (Janeane Garofalo) rapidly burgeoning romance with Henry (David Hyde Pierce), to the nerdy but loveable Coop (Michael Showalter), whose unrequited love for Katie (Marguerite Moreau) seems on the verge of requitement, assuming he can sidestep the pure awesomeness that is Andy (Paul Rudd). If it seems like all this teenage self-involvement might leave the campers neglected, well, that’s because it does. When one kid drowns, his swim buddy is thrown out of a moving van. No witness. For the most part, everyone goes home happy at the end of the film, and the rockin’ 80’s soundtrack takes us back to a simpler time. A time when “do you have any gum?” doubled as “let’s put our tongues together for a few minutes.”
To say that Wet Hot has a large cast is a severe understatement. Not only are nearly all of the characters given at least some kind of story to develop, but there’s something like eighteen of them that get a significant amount of screen time. Nineteen if you include Can of Vegetables (Jon Benjamin). This is so far past using your time wisely, and one of the pieces of this movie that can easily go unnoticed. Ensembles aren’t all that remarkable or unique, but this movie is 97 minutes long! To develop six or seven, even eight stories in that amount of time is genuinely impressive. Though clearly it’s not the most important part of the film.
The State or Stella brand of comedy is simply bizarre. So many jokes come from nothing and end as abruptly. This kind of writing isn’t done specifically to please an audience, but is bred out of the complete confidence that comes with years of being the funniest guys in the room. David Wain and Michael Showalter seem filled to brimming with this confidence, and the movie is what it is for this reason. Most of what happens here is tongue in cheek, but much more dramatically than most comedies unconcerned with continuity or plot. When the counselors arrive back from a brief (and shockingly licentious) trip to town, the boys hop off the truck and run straight to a cabin, where they promptly line up with their faces against the wall. There’s no explanation for this, and if an audience is too confused to laugh, it’s ok. It doesn’t really matter anyway. This is the type of film where it feels important that every actor gets to show off their goofiest run. And ultimately, it all adds strength to the notion that a film which doesn’t take itself too seriously really doesn’t have much to lose.
My favorite moment in Wet Hot American Summer comes right at the end. Coop and Katie are saying their goodbye after the dramatic events of the previous night’s talent show, when Coop finally won her affection. He begins to discuss the salient details of their long-distance love when she stops him. She’s given it some thought, and though Coop’s romantic gesture was the stuff that every girl dreams of, Andy is simply too hot to break up with…
He’s gorgeous. He has this beautiful face and this incredible body, and I genuinely don’t care that he’s kinda lame. I don’t even care that he cheats on me. And I like you more than I like Andy, Coop, but I’m 16. And maybe it’ll be a different story when I’m ready to get married, but right now, I am entirely about sex. I just wanna get laid. I just wanna take him and grab him and fuck his brains out, ya know? So that’s where my priorities are right now. Sex. Specifically with Andy and not with you.
As Katie goes on, the camera turns to Coop, nodding his understanding, his acquiescence. This is, after all, a thoroughly reasoned argument. Then, just as Katie arrives at the word “sex,” Coop glances at the camera, at the audience. It’s brief. If you blink you’ll miss it. But this short glance from Coop is important. The glance is a wink to the audience. It’s a nod to how silly we all were when we were young, how unaware. So much of this movie requires an awareness of nostalgia, but also an awareness of how ridiculous nostalgia can be. As much as the film molds its absurdity for laughs, it seems too to be working toward this conclusion. The shiny brightness of nostalgia is never real, and the reality was never quite as good.