Gimme Swelter

Wet Hot American Summer is, at best, soggy and lukewarm.

Wet Hot American Summer Read more in Calendar.
Paul Rudd and Marguerite Moreau in Wet Hot American Summer.
Paul Rudd and Marguerite Moreau in Wet Hot American Summer.
Finally, here's this season's candidate for worst movie ever made, a distinction cherished (and frequently awarded) by the bellicose lummoxes of this trade. Be warned: Those hoping for a return to the salad days of Meatballs should commence singing "Are You Ready for the Bummer?" right about now. Even playing its own stupid little game, obliviously breaking its own stupid little rules, Wet Hot American Summer doesn't swing, doesn't score, can't make it to first base, never even drags its sorry ass out of the dugout. Et voilà! -- there's the quote for the lovely critical anthologists at And pardners, just to clarify, that thar's a pan.

Perhaps you're incorrectly surmising that this critic is to wacky comedy what George F. Will is to partying hard, but really, this limp and directionless summer camp . . . homage? parody? failure? . . . is to a good time at the movies what seeping erectile tissue is to ballet. It's as fun and purposeful as a bris. It's akin to speeding home at night for the comfort of a mediocre rerun of Freaks and Geeks, only to find yourself stuck in endless traffic with a diesel Mercedes blasting fumes up your vents, while a halogen-beamed SUV burns out your retinas.

For that matter, the movie is like going to bed with Laverne and Shirley, but waking up with Lenny, Squiggy, and Carmine. It's like winning a free ticket to a Steven Seagal concert. It makes It's Pat, Superstar and A Night at the Roxbury look (natch) like Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and The Stranger -- and come to think of it, if heat is what you're after, you'd be better off revisiting Orson Welles in The Long Hot Summer, or even not revisiting him in its remake. This thing is worse than finding out that the next Star Wars movie will be called Anakin Two: On the Move (relax; the real title's worse). Imagine Lance Armstrong losing to cancer or David Lee Roth making another album, and you've got the taste of Wet Hot American Summer. Think of what it would feel like to wake up in the morning, look in the mirror, and see Jason Biggs, then rub your eyes, look again, and see Andy Dick. It's the kind of movie only a cinematically impaired, self-loathing, masochistic idiot might enjoy. But hey, if that's you, knock yourself out. Please. Now.

Alas, even though it would be preferable to sit through simultaneous audiobook readings of novels by Ethan Hawke and Moon Unit Zappa (at half speed, natch, with Megabass), sooner or later we have to mention what this intolerably awful piece of useless trash purloined from a dumpster in hell is actually about. In terms of tone and entertainment value, it lands somewhere between Aces: Iron Eagle III and Disorderlies, and -- sort of like a swarm of mutant killer bats carrying plague, mites, and Dorf DVDs -- this menace is headed to a dark, dank cinema near you, so let's just do a routine narrative appraisal to make sure everyone is properly briefed, or debriefed, or whatever turns you on.

First of all, there's a significant amount of tongue action on display here -- probably more than the project's host state of Pennsylvania sees annually. It's that grody, adolescent sort of lingual flip-flop too (as opposed to, say, the mature and dignified Michael Douglas waggling), and rookie feature director David Wain and his co-writer, Michael Showalter, seem a little more wistful about the pastime than is pleasant to behold. Of course, the duo -- best known for their peculiar antics on MTV's sketch comedy program The State -- would also like conservative viewers to choke on their prolonged depiction of sweat-socked sodomy in a toolshed (or its artistic parallel, the summer camp talent show), but whatever their curious mission -- presumably to lubricate our crusty sensibilities? -- they succeed mainly in taking a long walk off a short pier. The prudes won't be peeping excitedly from behind trembling fingers -- they'll just be checking their watches, in between swatting at the suggestion of mosquitoes.

Goodness knows why Janeane Garofalo signed up -- perhaps she's hoping to out-stupid her buddy Ben Stiller's forthcoming Zoolander -- but here she is, gamely playing the director of Camp Firewood, employing the same edge-of-patience tone she used as the medieval waitress in The Cable Guy. Her wry presence seems like penance -- or a dare -- but she strides atop this slop with aplomb, queen of the dipshits, communicating with her charges via helpful finger-quotes. When she falls for gentle astronomer David Hyde Pierce (a poor man's Michael McKean, who, in a moment of scientific frustration, mutters the movie's funniest line: "Fuck my cock!"), the movie actually seems, for a moment, to have a point.

The problem is that Wain and Showalter proudly make pointlessness their M.O., taking "risks" such as making their characters do things human beings would not do at times when human beings would not do them. This is all good and well in sketch comedy, but mere minutes into the movie's aimless, daylong trajectory, it already feels like an entire summer has been wasted. Also note that this is a period piece, set in 1981. "We figured that by setting a teen movie 20 years ago it would significantly, if not entirely, reduce the commercial value of our movie in the marketplace," Wain has joked. That's debatable -- even a baldly self-aware movie about the perils of being a total loser has a prefab audience out there -- but the philosophy definitely represents Wain's direction, which is simply snotty and incoherent.

Bear in mind, it would feel great to snicker along with these goony pranksters, at their rip-off of shell-shocked Bill Murray (Christopher Meloni as a 'Nam vet), their tender moments of pedophilia (Molly Shannon and Gideon Jacobs), and their truncated salutes to Loverboy (which is still touring and much more fun than this movie). But unfortunately, this venture into the woods is strictly for unhappy campers. Where's that Blair Witch when you really need her?

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