Camp Stinks. Send Me Home.

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 31, 2001

Does it really have to be 1981?

Well, yes, according to "Wet Hot American Summer," an abrasive comedy that takes us back to that unwonderful year and introduces us to some unwonderful people busy doing unwonderful things to each other and those they are charged to care for. All the horrors of the '80s are on display, from long, frizzy hair to shorts that are too short and socks that are too high and clothes that are too bright and music that is too, well, '80s.

This is supposed to be funny? It was so depressing I almost started to cry.

In any event, "Wet Hot American Summer" has been getting a lot of buzz from national critics as a summer sleeper, but somehow that testifies more to the quality of the other films than it does to this one. Here's how much I laughed: never. I mean, never. It just didn't work for me.

The concept is certainly sound. Take a summer camp, and all the hallowed traditions of care and nurturing that attend such a place, and then invert it crankily toward the outrageous. Yes, I suppose one or two might find it funny when an annoyed counselor throws a whiny kid out of a station wagon and into a ditch. They are lucky, because the filmmakers do it over and over again.

The counselors of Camp Firewood are a randy bunch who want merely to exchange bodily fluids with one another; the kids are extreme inconveniences to their pulsating libidos and can be and are safely ignored. And all this in bad clothes, with bad hair, to the sounds of bad music! We gotta get out of this place!

The camp leader, Beth, is played by Janeane Garofalo in high hippie regalia. She has the hots for a standoffish astrophysics professor played haltingly by David Hyde Pierce. Both of them are hemmers and hawers, stammerers, stutterers and gulpers: It's like watching Diane Keaton and Warren Beatty without the looks.

Then there's Michael Showalter, who co-wrote the script and who gets the big part as the camp counselor most desperate to succeed with the opposite sex. But he's the one thing women despise most ¿ the nice guy ¿ so of course he's constantly striking out, while his objet d'amour, Katie (Marguerite Moreau), throws herself pathetically at Andy (Paul Rudd), who is secretly gay.

Mostly the movie is about trysting the day away and everyone's romantic delusions, set against a somewhat exaggerated harshness directed at the whining kids in the background. There's a comic interlude "in town" where all the counselors undergo ordeal-by-drug-movie-cliche, a sequence that connects with nothing else. It's reputedly the high point, but I laughed never at it, either.

In all, this is a movie best suited for people who like it when kids get tossed out of cars.

WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER (R, 97 minutes) ¿ contains sex, drugs and profanity. At the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company