Camp Firewood, 1981. It's the last day of camp and everyone is busy. Camp director Beth (Janeane Garofalo) is trying to keep order while falling in love with astrophysicist Henry (David Hyde Pierce). Henry is trying to save the camp from being hit by a piece of SKYLAB hurtling toward Earth. Camp counselor Coop is in love with Katie, who is in love with lifeguard Andy. If that's not enough, there's a waterfall rescue, talking vegetable cans, the misfits, the cool kids... and more! It's a star-filled, laugh-a-minute, crazy comedy. Summer camp was never this much fun!
"Show me the fever, into the fire, taking it higher and higher!"
Not every movie is destined for mainstream success, but every now and then, a box office flop will go on to become something far more extraordinary than any run-of-the-mill blockbuster could ever hope to be. Every now and then, a once unloved and seemingly forgotten gem will rise from the celluloid ashes of the video store bargain bin, defiantly refusing to accept its rueful fate among other bottom shelf oddities and cinematic cautionary tales. Every now and then, a motion picture will find new life, resurrected in the eyes of a hungry and feverishly devoted fan base. Every now and then, a film will become… a cult classic.
It's a rare occurrence, mind you, usually reserved only for movies that eventually prove to be light-years ahead of their time. Or, you know, just really weird. Really, really weird. David Wain's 'Wet Hot American Summer,' definitely fits into at least one of those categories. A goofy parody of 70s & 80s teen comedies marked by a progressively absurd sense of humor and an amazing cast of (now) famous stars, the film has only become more popular with age, continuing to delight a growing audience with its silly summertime shenanigans.
Set during the last day of Camp Firewood's summer season in 1981, the movie follows a gang of counselors as they attempt to make the most of their short time left together -- which, for most of them, means finding someone to hook up with fast. Meanwhile, a wayward piece of NASA's Skylab heads directly for the woods, threatening to destroy the fornicating teens and neglected campers before they can finish their annual talent show! Hijinks, hilarity, and montages ensue.
Using the ticking camp schedule as its narrative glue, the filmmakers craft an episodic single-day adventure through retro kitsch and increasingly random absurdity. Co-writers David Wain and Michael Showalter essentially offer a cinematic checklist of 80s comedy conventions, making sure that every last tried-and-true cliché is accounted for by the time the credits roll. A virgin determined to get laid? Check! A nice-guy trying to win over the girl of his dreams from her douchebag boyfriend? Check! A couple of horny guys spying on bikini-clad women? Check! An inspirational training montage? Check! An awe-struck audience that hesitantly bursts out into an enthusiastic slow clap? Check and mate!
These various tropes and archetypes pile on top of one another, leading to a pitch-perfect spoof of old-school teen comedies and summer camp flicks like 'Meatballs,' 'Animal House,' 'Revenge of the Nerds' and 'Porky's. And as the runtime goes on, this farcical sense of humor gradually escalates, exaggerating the comedy with intentional production errors, goofy non-sequiturs, and a few twisted detours into dark satire. Indeed, more than just a standard parody flick, the film becomes an amusingly haphazard exercise in absurdist jokes, anticipating the ironic Adult Swim sensibilities that permeate the contemporary comedy world.
With that said, as sharp (or amusingly dumb) as most of the film's humor is, some of the jokes can be a bit hit-or-miss, and a few gags haven't aged as well as others. Meta-satires of retro filmmaking are pretty common now, robbing some of the movie's farcical genre observations of their freshness (the bit about the aborted baseball game comes across as particularly stale). Likewise, a good amount of the comedy relies on the audience being "in" on the joke by having some familiarity with the material being made fun of -- lessening the film's impact on viewers who might not be experts at teen comedy tropes. Still, there are plenty of bits that remain absolutely hilarious, and the amazing cast goes all-in on every last over-the-top moment with fevered commitment.
Though many were not quite the household names that they are now when the movie was first released, the film's all-star cast is any comedy fan's dream come true. Every single member of the ensemble -- which includes Elizabeth Banks, Michael Ian Black, Bradley Cooper, Janeane Garofalo, Joe Lo Truglio, Ken Marino, Christopher Meloni, A.D. Miles, Marguerite Moreau, Zak Orth, Amy Poehler, David Hyde Pierce, Paul Rudd, Molly Shannon, and Michael Showalter -- has a scene-stealing moment, playing up the film's goofy sense of humor perfectly. But as great as all of the actors are, Rudd, Shannon, and Meloni probably turn in the most memorable performances as the terrible boyfriend Andy, the recently divorced counselor Gale, and the psychotic chef Gene, respectively.
Either far too ahead of its time or far too weird (or possibly both) to connect with a mainstream audience back in 2001, 'Wet Hot American Summer' has become the very definition of a cult comedy classic. An absurdist parody that is both bitingly clever and hilariously stupid, the flick is still potently funny -- even if a few jokes have grown just a tad stale. With a prequel series set to premiere on Netflix on July 31 -- starring the now older cast playing younger versions of the characters they were already too old to be playing fourteen years ago -- this film remains the perfect treat for any Camp Firewood faithful. Now, if you'll excuse me, "I'm gonna go fondle my sweaters."
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Universal brings 'Wet Hot American Summer' to Blu-ray on a BD-50 disc that comes housed in a standard keepcase. After some warnings and logos, the disc transitions straight into the movie, forgoing a main menu screen.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Free from any troublesome processing, this is an authentic video presentation that respects the film's modest yet pleasing style.
The source is in good shape with a natural layer of grain and only minor specks here and there (though the opening campfire scene has a comparatively rough and vintage look). While the movie's visuals don't exactly lend themselves to impressive detail, clarity is strong throughout, bringing Camp Firewood and its early 80s production design and costumes to life with appropriate texture and depth. Colors adhere to a slightly cool cast due to all the rainy days on set, but greens and reds provide some decent pop and warmth. Whites are balanced well and, with the exception of the opening scene, blacks are deep and inky without crushing.
Considering its low budget roots, 'Wet Hot American Summer' comes to Blu-ray with a faithful transfer that should definitely please fans.
The film is presented with an English DTS-HD MA 2.0 Surround mix along with English SDH and French subtitles. There are some slight balance issues, but this is an effective track that adds some decent atmosphere to the silly comedy.
Dialogue is mostly clean and properly centered throughout, but there is some minor peaking in the high frequencies. Likewise, speech can sound a little low in some scenes compared to effects and music. The soundstage is fairly subdued, but there is a decent sense of general ambiance in the surrounds (birds, background clatter), that helps to enhance the camp atmosphere. Directionality is also solid, spreading occasional effects work across the front speakers when called for. Likewise, the movie's soundtrack of retro rock tunes and original songs sounds great, with wide dynamic range and pleasing stereo separation.
While the dialogue isn't always as well prioritized as it should be, the track's modest sound design works well with the goofy content.
Universal has provided a great assortment of supplements, including a few Blu-ray exclusive featurettes. All of the vintage special features are presented in standard definition with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. The new material is presented in 1080p.
'Wet Hot American Summer' is a pitch-perfect parody flick that hits all the right satirical notes. Thanks to an amazing cast of talented comedians and a goofy sense of absurd humor, the movie has become a genuine cult classic. Though understandably modest, the video and audio are both solid. Thankfully, Universal has provided a nice collection of supplements, including an informative commentary and some recent anniversary footage. This is a notorious "love it or hate it" kind of movie, but for fans, this release is an absolute no-brainer. Recommended.