Directed by David Wain and written by Wain and Michael Showalter, 2001’s Wet Hot American Summer is one of the few legitimate “cult classics” to have emerged post-2000. Sure, we’re always discovering new “old” films from the gutters and cemeteries of cinema history, some via revelatory re-releases or the increasingly miniscule parade of independent theaters pining for midnight screening success to fight the corporate behemoths of Big Theater. But a modern film that has emerged as a cult classic? Now that is a rarity, largely because most of the modern films we identify as cult classics don’t meaningfully fit the term. People can introduce the likes of Anchorman and The Big Lebowski within the halls of “cult classics” all they want, but that doesn’t change the obvious box office success of both films relative to their budgets. Calling them “cult” films only applies if “seemingly all Americans between the ages of 18 and 35” meaningfully qualifies as a “cult”.
But Wet Hot American Summer, a non-narrative ensemble film self-reportedly in the spirit of Nashville, Do the Right Thing, and (more honestly) Dazed and Confused that melds those caustic portraits of human malaise to a ribald, scruffy “teen comedy” piece from the early ‘80s? A work that grossed a sum total of less than 300,000 dollars at the American box office upon its initial release? Those films are “cult films” in the truest sense of the word, and both of those films are Wet Hot American Summer, a work that has risen primarily on the backs of the ensuing success of its cast, but which doesn’t require the success of that cast as a crutch for its own existence. Sure, it is by all means compelling to view the film through the warped lens of history, looking back on young Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Banks, Bradley Cooper, Paul Rudd, Janeane Garofalo, and (voicing a can of vegetables) H. Jon Benjamin. But the relaxed, lightly subversive, never-trying-too-hard quasi-surrealism of the piece is a devious charmer no matter who would go on to fame afterward.
It is a lazy-day film, surely, but the chill commitment of all involved keeps it from ever being “merely” a notable curio in film history for comedy fans. Certainly, it helps that Wet Hot American Summer was released in arguably the worst five year span in comedy cinema history, but the restless, reckless nature of the indifferently post-modern but pointedly never barbarically ironic film could exist in any time. Well, that isn’t entirely true. Wet Hot American Summer is so fundamentally tethered to the core of the “1980s teen film” sub-genre to have existed before that time period, but the film’s greatest trick is dancing right up to the line of “glibly ironic” late ‘90s and early ‘00s genre films without ever actually indulging in any of the smug, self-superior bad habits of that post-Scream era. Something about it feels more genuine, and thus more universal.
Showalter and Wain exhibit a pronounced addiction for meta-fun in the way the film, which details the last day of a summer camp in 1981, ever-so-slightly admits its own distance from the time period it depicts (such as a scathing dialogue where the teen counselors attempt to set up a “ten years later” meet-up to see how all their lives flowered post-camp, a dialogue in which we are painfully aware the characters are acting more out of the idea that this meet-up is something they are supposed to plan, rather than something they actually want to do). Wisely, however, this meta-textual habit is balanced with genuine empathy for the type-cast characters (Poehler and Cooper as presumably high-on-cocaine theater counselors perpetually in good spirits are deranged in their charisma but totally endearing in their enthusiasts-innocence).
The film doesn’t look down on its characters, nor does it invite derision for their out-of-touch ways, precisely because it understands their teenage whimsy and perturbed worry about the state of things to come. For this reason, the film occupies their mental state: confused, transitive and moving between tones on a moment’s notice, and generally unformed. Not quite a genius marriage of style and substance, but it is nice to see a film about teenagers retaining the easy-going momentary quality of the teenagers it depicts, knowingly speaking to teenagers rather than at them.
More fascinating still is the film’s place in the cultural lexicon. Films from the early ‘00s have not generally thrived in the interim as a cultural collection, but the period bears remembrance. Arguably the de facto zeitgeist sub-genre of the period was the “teen ensemble film”, a prismatic cross-genre affair that carved a niche in schlubby comedy and grisly soap opera slashers alike. This “teen first” trend did not exist in a vacuum, however; it was an avenue of cultural memory, fitting into the “US looks back 20 years” trend that saw the ‘90s give way to ‘70s nostalgia and the 2010s find warmth in the cultural missteps of the ‘90s. In the early ’00s, slashers, teen comedies, and stoner films, all hazy memories of the ’80s, roared back into style, reminders of the ‘00s kindred spirits in the past.
Looking back in 2015, Wet Hot American Summer is more than simply one of the few early ‘00s films to do ‘80s revival with the right mix of sweet wistfulness and acid-tinged, caustic bile. It is also a look back to a simpler time of its own. Not the ‘80s, mind you, but the early ‘00s themselves, with the Netflix prequel of 2015 and the film’s “cultural moment” 14 years past its triumphant box office failure in ’01 serving a marker not only for Wet Hot, but for our current (circa 2015) fixation with the late ‘90s and early ‘00s films like Wet Hot. If we look back to decades where cultural nostalgia for the then-past was already running the show, we have to question what we are really looking back on except a time that was itself infatuated with its own past. With the Netflix prequel, we are looking back on an early ’00s film that was itself a peek into the ’80s, essentially.
Besides, one of the defining traits of Wet Hot is its implicit expression of how the early ‘80s, that is the time period the film is nominally set in, mimicked the late ‘50s and early ‘60s glut of innocent teen films, albeit with a more ribald nature. Thus, Wet Hot is aware that it is being watched by people not of the ’80s, and that those people in the ’80s were really just thinking of prior decades all along themselves. Fittingly then, the film implicates itself in its own nostalgia and its own artifice throughout (the set design and camerawork, while not exactly notable, do a surprisingly dexterous job of evoking the camp environment warmly while also ensuring we see it as a place of memory, a set of the mind, rather than a real camp).It is a lightly but surprisingly dexterous film in this regard, a work that is always aware it is being watched, but never smug about it in the process.
Thus, if the film implicates its own artifice, it manages this balancing act without meaningfully denying the legitimacy of that nostalgia or smugly attacking its audience for embracing the past. Part of the film’s universality is its scorching specificity and how lovingly it recreates and subverts the idealized identity of the early ‘80s, invoking the present-tense understanding that all those films were, honestly, quite a bit silly all things considered, without ever actually mocking or undoing those films for this fact. Wet Hot American Summer, then, is a profoundly earnest film, hedonistic and impulsive in the way those early ‘80s films were in a way that establishes a respectful kinship to that scrappy post-New Hollywood era of American cinema, when nobody really knew what was going on. In reminding of a different time and then lithely undercutting that time with the realization that it was all nostalgia to begin with, the film is able to function more broadly as a study in teenagers remembering their fonder days and then coming to terms (or, more aptly, not coming to terms) with how blithely ignorant that fondness actually can be.
If nostalgia for sweltering teenage days shall retain its longevity, a film like Wet Hot will always serve as a statement to not only the past, but to the present. Because of its rampant commitment to that past, it is applicable in some form to every generation that remembers their own past, and it becomes a statement on what cultural memory means. Not bad for a non-narrative comedy without form or structure that failed at the box office. That’s how it is though. Jokes come and go, but artificial memories of the past that nonetheless serve a purpose for retaining human happiness will remain forever.