This week's top film is a comedy that released 14 years ago and has left a fascinating legacy over the years. David Wain's "Wet Hot American Summer" bombed with critics and audiences alike upon initial release in 2001, but has been embraced since then as a true cult classic. For any cinephile keeping abreast of pop culture, the reasons for its increasing popularity are plainly evident. One look at the cast list and you can't help but be impressed by its almost prophetic showcase of the imminent generation of film stars.
"Wet Hot American Summer" is an ensemble comedy that boasts the likes of Paul Rudd, Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler and Elizabeth Banks, long before their names held any significance in pop culture. Alongside more established names like Janeane Garofalo and David Hyde Pierce (among others), they all came together for this satirical take on teen sex comedies from the 1980s. The film chronicles the last day of a summer camp, where the adult cast members are intentionally miscast as late adolescent counselors to the young kids in their care. Under the watchful eye of the camp director (played by Janeane Garofalo), the gang gets up to mischief as they all vow to find romance before the summer is over.
As a true cult film, "Wet Hot American Summer" is a film that I didn't even know about until Netflix announced its upcoming prequel "Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Summer". With that Netflix stamp of approval, this film instantly became a must-see. I was curious to see what was so special about a project that failed so miserably the first time around.
From the first moments of the film however, I got it. In our age of nostalgia, "Wet Hot American Summer" is a fitting time capsule on two levels. Primarily, it's the aforementioned cast, many of whom had only acted in 2 or 3 films before. Having not yet crafted their public celebrity personas, it's a unique pleasure to see these big names blending in to an ensemble like proper working actors. Like Bradley Cooper for example, who is so unassuming here, far from his current status as a reliable Mr. Charisma. Indeed, it would have been impossible to predict their rise to fame at the time, but they all give you a twinkle of the star quality they would soon develop. They play the typical immature teen tropes (the slacker, the sexy blonde etc.) with so much gusto that you can't help being drawn to their thinly written characters.
The other way the film acts as a time capsule is in the general tone of the film. It works so well as a satire because it captures the reckless abandon and eager sexuality of the films of that era, like "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "Fast Times at Ridgemont High". If someone were to wake up from a 30 year slumber, they probably wouldn't find anything too unusual about the filmmaking. David Wain really deserves credit for this authenticity in his direction.
While "Wet Hot American Summer" has done well for itself over the years, it's also easy to see why it wasn't an immediate hit. Mainly, the screenplay too often relies more on silliness than wit for its jokes (the John Hughes and Cameron Crowe comparisons certainly don't apply to the writing). But despite its flaws, it provides a fun diversion through its youthful vibe and the undeniable "it" factor of its yet-to-breakout stars.