Sending up hormonally driven summer-camp pics of the late ’70s and early ’80s, “Wet Hot American Summer” is nearly half over before it finds a consistent groove, let alone a decent hit-to-miss joke ratio. Created by Michael Showalter and David Wain of sketch comedy troupe the State (all five members have roles here), pic’s aim wobbles between the droll, improv-based character humor of Christopher Guest’s films (such as “Best in Show”) and anything-goes, “Airplane!”-style lunacy. Nonetheless, fairly hilarious — if still scattershot — final reels will leave auds feeling they’ve gotten their money’s worth. Given proper promo and a timely summer release, commercial prospects are sound, with ancillary biz likely to outstrip theatrical.
Janeane Garofalo toplines as Beth, wallflowerish yet able director of Camp Firewood in rural Maine. (Pic was shot at three Pennsylvania camps.) It’s the last day of the 1981 season, with elementary school-aged enrollees to be picked up by parents the next morning. But focus rests primarily on her staff counselors, a stable of 16- to 18-year-old studs, hotties and nerds vividly aware they’ve got just 24 hours left to score.
Muscle-bound Victor (Ken Marino), a secret virgin despite all chick-bagging boasts, is desperate to make his assignation with the highly available Abby (Marisa Ryan). Sweet geek Coop (Showalter) pines for ultra-nice Katie (Marguerite Moreau), but she’s girlfriend to near-psychotically moody Andy (Paul Rudd). Tired of being left out, Beth sets sights on vacationing camp neighbor Henry (David Hyde Pierce), an astrophysics professor whose social skills low-ball even hers.
Other notable figures in the large roster of characters include a closeted gay couple (Michael Ian Black, Bradley Cooper), a creepy sci-fi dweeb (Kevin Sussman), two “Porky’s”-type snicksters (Zak Orth, A.D. Miles), and impossible-to-please drama teacher Susie (Amy Poehler).
Punctuated by time-coded blackouts, pic charts the day’s progress (with a morning-after coda and brief “hidden” epilogue post-credits) toward the night’s farewell talent show.
Despite brisk pacing, early scenes have a tepid feel, as promising character dynamics idle amid laugh lines and gags that misfire more often than not. Modest prod’s period trappings (feathered haircuts, AM rock tracks) amuse, but the genre satire at first seems mild and unfocused.
It’s just jarring when Wain and Showalter abruptly spring an incongruous episode of jet-black humor (as Beth’s afternoon trip to town lunges from 0 to 10 on the decadence scale). Later on, however, such surrealist japes become more frequent, belatedly lifting “Summer” into woollier terrain resembling Comedy Central’s Dadaist high school hit “Strangers With Candy.”
Loose scenario helps by introducing several ridiculous “suspense” hooks, from imperiled river rafters to a hunk of space junk hurtling toward the recreation lodge where the talent show is taking place.
Yet inspiration remains stubbornly spotty, in both individual gags and character conceits. Poehler does much with very little, while her equally talented “Saturday Night Live” castmate Molly Shannon (as a weepy divorcee) is given greater screen time for dull material. Garofalo’s line readings spark a blah role. A running bad-taste joke involving neglectful lifesaver Andy is almost too thrown away to make an impression.
On the plus side, genre-parodic aspects (convenient plot logic, “inspirational” formulae, cliched dialogue) grow sharper as feature progresses, and filmmakers’ delight in sheer lameness peaks with multicast Showalter’s late turn as the talent show’s bewilderingly well-received guest emcee, a “Catskills comedian” of stunning banality.
Best of all is Christopher Meloni’s Gene, the Vietnam-veteran camp cook whose delusions and fetishes grow ever more outrageous. (His spiritual adviser is a talking can of mixed vegetables.) Gene’s climactic gotta-be-me cafeteria speech hits an absurdist home run.
Tech aspects are nicely turned, with Ben Weinstein’s crisp color lensing helping to smooth out first-time helmer Wain’s handling of uneven material.