[Screen It]

(2001) (Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce) (R)

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Comedy: Various kids and their camp counselors try to sort out their romances and problems on the last day of summer camp.
It's August 1981 and the last day of summer camp at Camp Firewood. Beth (JANEANE GAROFALO), the camp director, is trying to make sure that the day's activities - including the annual talent show - go off as planned, all while keeping a romantic eye on Henry (DAVID HYDE PIERCE), a local astrophysics professor whom she asks to come over and teach the kids a thing or two about science.

Meanwhile, the various teen camp counselors are in the throes of romantic quandaries and/or hormonal rage. It's not uncommon to see Andy (PAUL RUDD) and Katie (MARGUERITE MOREAU) engaged in full lip lock, with Katie too busy or oblivious trying to find nerdy counselor Coop (MICHAEL SHOWALTER) a last minute date to notice Andy fooling around with fellow counselor Lindsay (ELIZABETH BANKS).

The perpetually lascivious Victor (KEN MARINO) finds himself enticed by camp slut Abby (MARISA RYAN), while J.J. (ZAK ORTH) is interested in finding some woman to help fellow counselor McKinley (MICHAEL IAN BLACK) lose his virginity. He seems interested, however, in Ben (BRADLEY COOPER), one of the drama counselors who works with Susie (AMY POEHLER), the uptight coordinator of the pending talent show.

Among the adults, 34-year-old Gail (MOLLY SHANNON) is lamenting her recent divorce and receives guidance and advice from Aaron (GIDEON JACOBS), one of her young charges, while camp cook and resident psycho Gene (CHRISTOPHER MELONI) torments both himself and his kitchen assistant, Gary (A.D. MILES).

As the day wears on and the big talent show looms - as does a falling piece of Skylab that's targeted the camp - everyone there tries to get in their last bit of fun and love before having to head back home for the fall.

OUR TAKE: 2 out of 10
As long as people are and/or try to be serious, there will be those who make fun of them, either in playful jest or simply to be mean, and sometimes a combination of both. In the world of entertainment, that comes in the form of parodies, with the likes of Weird Al Yankovic skewering popular songs and videos and TV shows such as "Saturday Night Live" and "Mad TV" doing the same to pretty much anyone and everything.

As far as movies are concerned, parodies come in the form of films such as the "Airplane" and "Naked Gun" pictures that poked fun at airline disaster and cop/detective movies respectively. While no genre or sub-genre should be exempt from such comedic treatment, an unofficial rule of the parody is that the "serious" entries in the genre should be both numerous and contemporary. That's so that such material is fresh in viewers' minds - and thus potentially that much funnier - and explains why one hasn't seen any recent parodies of James Cagney style gangster films or Abbott and Costello movies.

All of which leads us to summer camp films. If you're drawing a blank right now, that's because it's been a while since any such mainstream films have hit the theaters, and that's the first strike against "Wet Hot American Summer," a parody of such films. Granted the camp material - and I mean that associated with kids in cabins in the woods and not artificial, vulgar or banal material (okay, I supposed that's involved as well) - was ripe for the picking back when films such as "Meatballs," "Little Darlings" and the first several "Friday the 13th" films "graced" the silver screen.

Of course, little of that material - the horny camp counselors, the daily camp activities, the wide assortment of one-note kid characters, etc. - was intended to be taken seriously in the first place, so the point of making fun of that is, well, somewhat pointless. After all, think of mid '90s films such as "Ernest Goes to Camp" and "Heavyweights" and you'll see what I'm talking about. Strike two.

The third strike - and if I remember correctly, that means you're out - is that the film simply isn't very funny, despite the abundant and over the top efforts of the cast and crew. The filmmakers - writer/director David Wain (TV's "The State") and co-writer Michael Showalter (making his feature writing debut after appearing on that MTV show) - have taken something of the machine gun approach by firing out as many jokes as possible, hoping that some will hit their target. Yet, none of that occurs in the imaginative, clever or silly ways that Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker managed in the "Airplane" and "Naked Gun" films.

Not only do most of the jokes fall flat - even when we can see the target and appreciate the effort - but they also quickly wear thin and soon become both irritating and annoying. They're all presented in a very fragmented and episodic fashion with the various gags and skits standing alone and rarely helping in building up the necessary comedic momentum a film like this so desperately needs.

There's all of the summer romance material where raging hormones drive the young men and women crazy. Yet, beyond some exaggerated French kissing (and chewing gum before that) and what's supposed to be a comically surprising homosexual twist (that's more soft core porn than funny), little of that material works beyond the first instance where we get the joke and then want the filmmakers to move on to something else.

Unfortunately, that resultant material includes the kid who doesn't want to take a shower, the drama counselor who's both overzealous and uptight, the nerdy loner, the attractive boyfriend who's a jerk, the counselor trying to get her nerdy friend a date and the psycho cook. While some of that could have had the potential for at least some degree of being funny, most of it's laborious at best and often painfully forced most of the other times.

That's particularly true of the late in the game talent show that's repeatedly referenced throughout the film, thus building our expectations that either something in it or least about it will be hilarious, outrageous or at least worth waiting for, but that's unfortunately not the case.

The performances are all pretty much rote for a film like this, with so much purposeful overacting that you'll think you've stumbled into a group session of OverActers Anonymous. Among the more recognizable faces are Janeane Garofalo ("Mystery Men," "The Matchmaker") and David Hyde Pierce ("Osmosis Jones," TV's "Frasier") as the nerdy adults who fall for one another. Despite their talent, the two deliver flat performances, probably lower their future acting prices and, in the case of Pierce, taint his Emmy winning stature.

Molly Shannon ("Osmosis Jones," "Superstar") does her normal neurotic shtick, this time as a divorcee who gets advice from a kid about her love life in a running gag that just doesn't work, while Paul Rudd ("The Object of My Affection," "Clueless") is wasted in an unfunny role as an unfaithful jerk. Christopher Meloni ("Runaway Bride," TV's "Law & Order") plays his 'Nam based, psychotic cook character with the appropriate zest and zeal, but the material he's been given to work with doesn't allow him to make any great comedic strides.

Michael Showalter ("Safe Men," TV's "The State"), Marguerite Moreau (the "Mighty Ducks" films) and Zak Orth ("Loser," "Down to You") play some of the typical teen counselors, but are just as unremarkable and instantly forgettable - intentional or not - as the cinematic creations they're attempting to parody.

While fans of Wain and Showalter's work on "The State" might appreciate, understand or possibly find some of their efforts here amusing or funny, most mainstream viewers probably won't and instead will quickly lose patience during this extremely forced affair. Perhaps with more creative or at least better written material the parody might have worked - although to whatever limited degree is debatable - but what's offered here simply does not. "Wet Hot American Summer" rates as just a 2 out of 10.

Reviewed August 16, 2001 / Posted August 31, 2001

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