- The Washington Times - Friday, August 31, 2001

Do you remember those classic summer-camp movies of the late 1970s and early '80s? If not, it's probably because the genre barely had a pulse beyond 1979's "Meatballs" and 1980's "Little Darlings."

That's part of the problem that short-sheets "Wet Hot American Summer," a scattershot satire created by a pair of sketch-comedy veterans obsessed with a time and mood long since forgotten.

David Wain and Michael Showalter, late of the MTV sketch-comedy show "The State" and oblivious to their anachronistic impulses, blast away at a sliver of a trend. Today's teens won't understand the sly nods to such films, from the shaggy hairstyles to the impromptu make-out sessions sparked by chewing gum. Those who actually came of age during this period will be intermittently amused by "Summer's" onslaught of silliness.

Still, summer camps provide plenty of fodder for ridicule. Mr. Wain, who directs, goes about his duties with all the subtlety of a teen-age boy cut loose in a whoopee-cushion factory.

Several familiar faces make this camp recap more tolerable, from Janeane Garofalo as a repressed camp director to David Hyde Pierce of "Frasier" as an addled astrophysics professor.

"Summer" takes place during the last day of a camp stay in Maine in 1981. Rock, not rap, is the music of the rebellious youths gearing up for their final goodbyes. This is their one last chance to sneak tokes of reefer and grope at fellow campers before their parents collect them.

The usual suspects assorted nerds, druggies and socially awkward teens striving for acceptance in any form imaginable round out Camp Firewood.

Coop (Mr. Showalter), the prototypical nice guy, pines after Katie (Marguerite Moreau), who only has eyes for the sullen lifeguard, a pleasantly cast-against-type Paul Rudd. Miss Garofalo's character is trying to keep order on the final day while wooing Mr. Pierce's hapless professor, Henry.

Amid the strings of the threadbare plot lies a talent-show competition run by crazed camp counselors Susie (Amy Poehler) and Ben (Bradley Cooper), who provide the film's biggest laughs. Also, Henry must save the camp from a slab of Skylab headed to crash down on the site within hours.

Here, the filmmakers throw every possible comic conceit at the audience, from too-tight Sergio Valente jeans to the flared collars sported by the preppiest counselors. Any ribald joke will do, too, which takes some of the fun away from the film's few tender sequences.

"Summer" lurches through its 97-minute running time like Dr. Frankenstein's monster fleeing a torch-wielding mob. The disjointed spirit bespeaks Mr. Wain's sketch-comedy background. He shapes each scene as if waiting for the commercial break to save him.

A romp through the local city, which finds several characters drowning themselves in hard-core drug use, is neither fun nor funny. It's a lazy set piece that probably sounded daring on paper. A similarly ill-advised, albeit brief, scene features a young homosexual couple making love in a secluded shack.

The talent-show culmination, a potential powder keg of comic material, is given such short shrift that when it finally arrives, it feels like yet another wasted resource.

"Summer," to its credit, effectively captures the sounds and clunky fashion sense of the early '80s, down to the jogging shorts with white piping.

Even the film's color stock appears washed out, further magnifying the time warp.

One ongoing gag involving "Saturday Night Live" alumna Molly Shannon as a dysfunctional divorcee working through her problems with her young charges generates laughs. Christopher Meloni of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" also scores as an addled Vietnam veteran who talks to canned food.

Miss Garofalo, often an earthy film presence, is given little to do until the final reel, when the director unwisely coaxes her to scream maniacally for what seems like minutes. One feels more than a little embarrassed for the likable actress.

When the writers can't think of anything funny for their characters to do, they slip them vulgar speeches to score easy laughs. Hearing Mr. Pierce, whose television work alongside Kelsey Grammer borders on the inspired, utter such claptrap is unsettling.

"Wet Hot American Summer" is a motley stew of moderately clever moments, an undisciplined affair laced with profanity and the occasional honest emotion. It never bubbles over into the hilarity the actors desperately try to inspire. The cast carries out its duties with more forced gaiety than a comedy troupe should rightly show.

"Summer" tries to give us a prurient sex comedy with sweetly nostalgic undertones but ultimately fails at both.


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