Summer 2001: paradise before the fall, a season of innocent fantasy and untroubled spectacle. It was all so different then, wasn’t it? Who can remember the simple pleasures of that vanished era, never to be had again, as we whiled away our weekends in the company of Shrek, Harry Potter, and the Ocean’s Eleven crew, and marveled at the latest hits from Pixar (Monsters, Inc.) and Michael Bay (Pearl Harbor).
It might be déjà vu all over again in summer of 2007—maybe Chertoff’s “gut feeling” is on to something after all—but there was something different about the movies back then. The year 2001 incubated an astonishingly rich and exceptionally freaky batch of cult movies: Pootie Tang, Donnie Darko, Freddy Got Fingered, Mulholland Drive, and the ultimate reject from the class of ’01, Wet Hot American Summer.
Released on two screens at the end of July, the movie went on to gross a grand total of $295,206—but, oh, how sweet the revenge of the nerds! Destined for consumption on the bong-stained couches of the slacker nation, Wet Hot American Summer clicked with the overeducated, undermotivated Gen X set, appealing to its sophisticated taste for calculated stupidity and memories of the most marginal ’80s genre, the summer-camp comedy. Word-of-mouth popularity on DVD has triggered a WHAS attack on the midnight-movie circuit; Sunshine Cinema hosts a pair of screenings this weekend.
Paying homage to risqué junk of the Meatballs ilk, WHAS plays out like a low-rent hipster lark in the spirit of Soderbergh’s Ocean franchise: an invitation to kick it with groovesters (or geeks, in this case) on holiday as they hang out, pal around, and amuse themselves just this side of smug. As Beth, director of Camp Firewood, Janeane Garofalo leads an ensemble of twenty- to thirtysomethings pretending to be teenagers and sets the tone—the only one she can—of affable, half-ass snark. Paul Rudd does a flamboyantly disingenuous turn as a horny counselor. Christopher Meloni is a pervy cook/Vietnam vet who keeps a supply of “dick cream” in the pantry and enjoys “fondling the sweaters.” David Hyde Pierce plays Henry the astrophysicist, who rallies the “indoor kids” for science experiments and saves the planet from an impending asteroid just in time for the big talent show.
Structured only by its time frame (the last day of camp) and total commitment to casualness, the movie feels tossed off in the most appealing way, bobbing along like the cute, dim-witted nephew of Dazed and Confused. It’s more grins than guffaws, though a couple of bits, like the greatest gay experimentation sequence in the history of cinema, have become legendary. And it more than delivers the promise of the tagline: “High Times. Hard Bodies. Soft Rock.”