I get cult movies. I get seminal movies. But I’m not sure I get seminal cult movies. Just like the other seminal cult film that springs to mind, Dazed and Confused, the most influence I see coming out of Wet Hot American Summer is to watch it 15 years later and see a bunch of not-yet-famous actors.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. In and of itself, it’s a great parody, on par with Airplane! and Hot Shots! Like those classics, it is both conscious and respectful of its genre: the actors playing 18-year-olds are clearly in their late 20s, it’s the last day of camp everyone’s trying to get laid, friends scheme to help their friend lose his virginity, our hero trains during a montage, and so on. (Just look at the poster for proof the movie knows its forebears.) But almost immediately, these familiar setups are tweaked. In two of the funnier twists, the “slobs versus snobs” softball game – complete with motivational speech to the slobs by our hero – is quickly cancelled when the slobs say they don’t care and the snobs decide to go back to their camp; and the aforementioned plan to help a counselor lose his virginity involves hot gay sex, a civil union, and an unlikely gift from Crate and Barrel. As good as these genre skewerings are, I actually laughed more at some of the random jokes. In that way, Wet Hot American Summer reminded me of the best parts of a movie like Hot Shots!, which I think is funnier the further its gets from its Top Gun parody.
Not every joke hits, however. Writer Ian Michael Black, writer/director David Wain, and a lot of the actors come from an improv background. And it shows. I am not a huge improv fan. For every funny joke, there are a dozen that appear only to be funny to the performers themselves (at least in my experience). And this is clear in some of the longer, odder parts, like the camp cook repeatedly mentioning bizarre fetishes, or the talking can of beans that counsels him. These might sound funny when reading about them, but they’re delivered with the “pause for laughter” timing that reminds me of my worst improv memories.
Luckily, there are so many jokes that, even if 50 percent missed, I still laughed almost the entire way through. In the end, I’m not sure if this is a seminal cult film, or just a funny movie. For what it’s worth, I laughed a lot more at Wet Hot American Summer than Dazed and Confused.