Saturday, August 22, 2015

Wet Hot American Summer and the Smart "Stupid" Movie

My sister loves Seinfeld.  I don't.  I don't get the brand of humor where people overreact to small incidents, usually incidents that aren't really that bothersome.  And yet, what does it say that I absolutely love movies that consist of people doing nothing but going crazy at small things?

It goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway) that humor is highly subjective.  Reasons one person finds certain situations funny can be a complete mystery to someone else.  I can't fully explain why I'm such easy prey for the smart "stupid" movie, but I'm going to try.

The smart "stupid" movie is usually part of the parody genre, which mocks movie trends and offers insights into the mindset of a specific era.  When done right, the smart "stupid" movie can leave you rolling on the floor with laughter, while also recognizing that the movie just gets it somehow.  When done wrong, the smart "stupid" movie is just... stupid.

It is a very thin line between smart "stupid" and genuinely stupid, and staying on the smart side of the line is very difficult.  Often, smart "stupid" movies will have at least some lapses into pure stupidity.  Whether those lapses taint the movie overall depends upon the individual viewer's tolerance.  If you understand what the movie is trying to do, and appreciate that it hits its mark more often than it misses, you will still enjoy it.  If you don't see the method behind the madness, if all you see is stupid, then you will likely hate it.  These genres tend to not have much in between.

Take Wet Hot American Summer.  When it premiered in 2001, it was widely derided as a failed attempt at parody and juvenile.  Roger Ebert went so far as to write a sarcastic review about it in the form of the classic song "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah."  It did poorly at the box office and vanished quickly from theatres.

And yet... this movie quickly became a cult classic among intelligent people who would normally be quick to deride the mindlessness of mainstream movies and television.  Was it because so many smart comedians, like Amy Poehler and Jeanane Garofolo, were in it?  Was it because so many of the actors, like Paul Rudd, Bradley Cooper, and Elizabeth Banks, would go on to greater fame?  Was it because it captured a time of their lives in a way that no other movie truly did?  It could have been all of those reasons, and none of them.

Truth be told, even as a lover of the smart "stupid" movie, I find Wet Hot American Summer to be a bit of a puzzle.  Whereas I can easily laugh at Not Another Teen Movie because it parodies John Hughes and other high school romance movies, I don't have much of an impression of summer camp.  I went for a week when I was 11 and that was pretty much it.  So Wet Hot American Summer doesn't tap into any reservoir of feelings.

(From this point forward, spoilers follow.)  For anyone not familiar with the movie, the basic plot is that the year is 1981, it's the last day of an eight-week summer camp, and anything can and does happen.  That includes "Coop," one of the counselors, finally admitting his love of fellow counselor, Katie; two megalomaniac counselors holding a talent show; and camp director Beth finding unexpected romance with Henry, an astrophysicist, while at the same time a piece of Skylab is plummeting to earth and threatening to hit the camp.  You know, the usual.

As you likely guessed, Wet Hot American Summer isn't a clean plate where only one or two plot lines predominate; it is a stew.  An often weird stew, especially with any scene involving Gene, the camp cook and Vietnam vet with an affinity for refrigerators.

Gene.  Didn't really get him until the prequel series.
AV Club did an article on the cultural influences on the movie, some of which I recognize.  However, at times, rather than parody something specific, Wet Hot American Summer seems wacky and tasteless for the sake of being wacky and tasteless.  Like with Gene, or with Andy accidentally letting kids drown due to carelessness, then tossing the witnesses out into the wilderness.

Other times, even when I recognize the movie is parodying something, I'm not sure what it is.  Take, for instance, Victor's mad dash to get back to Abby Bernstein, leaving campers in danger on the white water rapids.  Or Beth and Neil's hysterical overreaction in the nurse's office as they try to locate Victor.

And sometimes, even when I know what Wet Hot American Summer is parodying, I'm not sure it always lands.  One example would be Gail's growing attraction to a young camper who gives her supportive advice over how to stand up to her ex husband.  It's a parody of any movie where the man or woman's best friend/colleague slowly rises from supporting role to the new love interest.  Here, the role is filled by a kid who's maybe 12 at most.  As it unfolds, the plot line is a cross between funny and skin crawling because it is so, so very wrong.

Yep that's... pretty wrong.
If Wet Hot American Summer has these issues, why do I still laugh?  For that matter, why would I find any movie with similar issues to be funny?  First, it's important to point out that many times, I don't find the jokes funny.  I don't care for Gene's refrigerator speech (although the talking can seems funnier in retrospect thanks to Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp).  Victor's antics get tiring, and there are even stretches of the movie that feel dull.         

What makes it click overall is that, when it works, it really works.  Part of it is due to the general absurdist tone the movie takes.  When that tone is put into the service of a truly crazy plot line, it works wonders.  For instance, in a different movie, the Skylab danger -- partially based on real life, partially based on sci-fi action movies -- might have been flaccid and overwrought.  However, here, every plot point and sudden plot twist is kicked up a notch in absurdity.  It's not just that the Skylab could land on the camp, but that it could land on the theatre right as the talent show is happening.  It's not just that Henry and his band of Goonies-like nerd kids can stop it with a homemade tracking device, it's that they can only stop it with a device made from doughnuts and a can of spam.

And then there is the pivotal moment of camper Steve's performance at the talent show.  Only in a movie as absurd as Wet Hot American Summer could a camper unveil superpowers and it would practically be considered an afterthought.  Of course Steve has the ability to create gusts of wind with his hands.  Gusts of wind that can only be observed inside the theatre, but somehow are enough to send the Skylab off course so that it crashes harmlessly into the ground.  In true parody style of films like Lucas, Steve, the friendless nerd kid, earns the appreciation of the talent show audience, leading to the slow clap.



The absurdist tone also lightens the effect of plots like the aforementioned Gail/camper romance that could otherwise be considered downright offensive.  Seeing Gail and the 12-year-old camper go off to get married in the end, few would view the situation realistically.  Instead, it could be read as the supportive friend role taken to extremes combined with Gail's desperation for true love.  Likewise, Andy essentially killing campers due to negligence invokes laughs because, again, it is an extreme situation meant to showcase Andy's narcissism, nothing more.  No one thinks that would actually happen.  Right?  Right??

The tone of Wet Hot American Summer is greatly assisted by the actors' performances.  No one does a diva theatre director/producer/choreographer better than Amy Poehler as Susie.  No one can make an asshole boyfriend quite as likable as Paul Rudd makes Andy.  Jeanane Garofolo brings a steady grounded quality to her performance as Beth, yet never in a way that detracts from the absurdity of the situation.  And few could be as straight-faced when delivering lines like "I've grown up a lot since before dinner when we last talked" as Michael Showalter's Coop.

Yet even so, why do I laugh?  Why do I find this funny and not the griping on Seinfeld?  Maybe because that's what most of Seinfeld is -- griping.  The characters spend a lot of time reacting like the world is going to end over very minor things, things that I often either do not notice or do not care about.  They gripe, complain, avoid.  While the tone of Seinfeld episodes can be absurd and silly, there is still this overlay of negativity that makes watching an episode tiring.  By contrast, movies like Wet Hot American Summer, or other parody movies that hit more than miss, like Not Another Teen Movie, have a very light, often whimsical tone.  Unlike the Seinfeld characters, the characters in these movies never take themselves too seriously, or if they do, the movie sends a clear message that they shouldn't.  That makes the plot, no matter how twisted or absurd, easier to digest.

George and Jerry griping about... something.
Furthermore, while Seinfeld is cleverly done, the gripes feel like the end result.  The show doesn't seem to aim for anything bigger.  Not that it should, but I like when movies or television shows, no matter what genre, aim to be more than just the next joke or the next plot point.  Wet Hot American Summer wants to make fun of 70's and 80's camp movies, comeback movies, romantic comedies, disaster movies, and movies where teenagers are played by 30-year olds.  It doesn't always succeed, but at least it succeeds more often than it fails.

And then there's the "get it" factor.  Except for Elaine, I don't really get the Seinfeld characters.  I don't relate to them.  While I don't necessarily relate to characters like Susie either, I get what they're about, what the movie seeks to parody with them.  I get Beth.  I get Coop.  Hell, I even get Gail to an extent.  I also get what Wet Hot American Summer is trying to do with its parody of the early 80's, and it often works.  There is just this unmistakable 80sness about everything, this sense that "yeah, that's probably what it would have been like, even without the falling Skylab."

And that is what matters most, what separates comedy that makes you laugh from comedy that leaves you cold.  You must get it on some level, even if you don't know why.

For the reasons stated above, I enjoy smart "stupid" movies like Wet Hot American Summer, as well as its prequel, First Day of Camp.

That being said, it is one thing to like a movie or television show that pretends to be stupid, and another to like one that is plain stupid.  Many smart people avoid movies and shows that are flat-out dumb, but there is that small circle of shows that are dumb in such a specific way that they are actually kind of awesome.  I'll be taking a look at that in a future article.

The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.