Recurring Cast: Michael Showalter, Marguerite Moreau, Paul Rudd, Christopher Meloni, Janeane Garofalo, Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio, Jason Schwartzmann, Lake Bell, Michael Ian Black, Molly Shannon, Zak Orth with Michael Cera, Chris Pine, John Slattery, Kristin Wiig and Jon Hamm
Wet Hot American Summer as a movie was a little all over the place. It had too many ideas, so many wacky characters and not enough time to get everything it wanted to across. It didn’t help that their small-time cast are pretty much all superstars in their own way these days, so while having Elizabeth Banks as a bit part worked before, she feels criminally under-used now. This is where creating a series is such an inspired idea. Now, the writers have eight episodes to slowly introduce their characters and tell their stories, while being able to cut to the supporting cast, so no one gets lost in the rush of the finale. It doesn’t hurt that finally these big names are given a chance to return to their old characters and have a second chance at making this movie a hit.
The big problem that Episode One seems to have is the fact that a good few years have passed since we last saw these characters. More than a decade. It was a bit of a struggle before to picture fully-developed women like Marisa Ryan as a sixteen year old girl, but now it is downright laughable. Michael Showalter looks nothing like his original character. In fact, only Bradley Cooper, Paul Rudd and Elizabeth Banks seem to have managed to get away from that whole ageing problem the rest of humanity are stuck with. Thankfully, because the tone of Wet Hot American Summer asks the audience to suspend a lot of disbelief, it only takes a few jokes to make this problem seem like a small hitch, rather than a show-stopper. Some of the ways it writes in and explains the old characters are phenomenally funny. Elizabeth Banks’ character has a twist reveal and when Marisa Ryan comes along, it could be up there with the laugh of the season. The final episode just turns around and totally tears this problem to pieces with two jokes that are genius in their honesty about the ageing of their actors. “By the end of summer camp, we’ll feel fifteen years younger!” Michael Showalter tells a young camper. The goodbye between Amy Poehler and John Slattery is terrifically inappropriate, yet comedy gold. The new cast fit in really well, Wet Hot American Summer deciding that they might as go for even more superstars. Chris Pine cameos as a mythical rock star. Michael Cera gets a whole character arc dedicated to him halfway through as a small-time lawyer, taking on the big shots. Jon Hamm does his usual trick of swooping in and stealing the show, in a way only Don Draper could.
Sure, it isn’t perfect. While the extended run time makes Wet Hot American Summer’s jokes a little easier to get along with, there are still a few gags that simply don’t work. Michael Showalter takes on the role of Ronald Reagan, but other than the pitch perfect impression, no one is sure what joke to go with. The chosen gag is a little ‘will this do?’. There are also a few repeated jokes, almost as though David Wain is making a do-over, rather than a prequel. The big twist ending to the lead relationship in the movie is copied on another budding romance. It is only moderately amusing, because we have seen it before after all. The finale is also a bit messy, Wain struggling to end any of his big stories. The petty camp rivalries are juxtaposed with giant government conspiracies, which while good fun in the set-up ends pretty awkwardly. The jokes get hit and miss. Some are good, like Kristen Wiig attacking Ken Marino with an oyster fork and Chris Pine’s departure from the season. But on the whole, it seems like they are racing to the finishing line, before anyone notices they are out of ideas. But, there is still so much to compliment. If some of the big gags fail, the smaller jokes do. There is something so satisfying about bigging up Jon Hamm’s killer assassin only to him subtly check for change in a phone booth. Small, yet so funny.
Final Verdict: A few problems remain, but this is a much better effort from David Wain. Some great laugh out loud moments.