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The Best Summer Movie Ever is ‘Wet Hot American Summer’

Perhaps the Best Summer Movie Ever is also the wettest, hottest, and most American. Paul Rudd probably thinks so.
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By  · Published on April 26th, 2018

It’s Debate Week. This article is one of sixteen arguments competing for the prize of being named ‘Best Summer Movie Ever.’ Read the rest throughout the week here.

If you’ve been paying attention to Debate Week: Summer Movie Edition here at Film School Rejects, you’ve probably been sensing a pattern. From Jaws to The Iron Giant, the films that are being put forth as “the best summer movie ever” are classic critical darlings, box office smashes, or both. Most of these films are great. Some are just great fun. But not one of them is wetter, hotter, or more American than the critically reviled box-office failure that is Wet Hot American Summer.

I put it to you that Wet Hot American Summer is, in fact, the very best summer movie of all time. For serious, okay?

And I know that some of you are thinking, “who is this asshole? Wet Hot American Summer, a better summer movie than Star Wars? Who the hell is he kidding?” To that, I say: leave your bullshit attitude and baggage at the door, ‘cause we don’t need it. Bust out your dick cream, smear some mud on your ass, and get with the program.

What is the criteria for the best summer movie, anyway? It seems to me any movie seeking that title should excel above all others in three distinct areas: Action, Comedy, and Drama. These are the qualities that define each of the sixteen films currently in Debate Week contention.

Comedy is an easy win for Wet Hot American Summer. For one thing, nothing has ever been funnier than this clip of the Camp Firewood crew “going into town.”

For another, here’s Paul Rudd having a tantrum:

Oh, and Ken Marino singing Danny’s Song:

What in Ratatouille is funnier than David Hyde Pierce’s recitation of “oh, fuck my cock?” Does anything in The Rock tickle your biscuits quite as much as Rudd’s immaculate reading of “my butt itches?”

The only Debate Week movie that rivals Wet Hot in terms of sheer laughs is Airplane. Airplane, whose primary contributions to pop culture were Julie Hagerty, a sequel, and a joke involving someone named Shirley. Surely you can’t be arguing that Airplane, a movie without the word “summer” in its title, is a better summer movie than Wet Hot American Summer, a movie with the word “summer” in its title?

Let’s talk about Drama. Every character in Wet Hot American Summer gets their own character arc full of emotion and pathos. You might think that a silly David Wain comedy like Wet Hot would lack true pathos (if you think that, you definitely missed Wain’s tragically brilliant A Futile and Stupid Gesture, now streaming on Netflix), but you would be wrong in that assumption. The most obvious example of Shakespearean Drama in Wet Hot is the tale of Ben and McKinley, played respectively by a pre-fame Bradley Cooper and Michael Ian Black. The two male counselors engage in a secret gay romance, including an artfully shot, passionate sex scene. Wet Hot is not only full of cathartic drama, it’s also chock-full of progressive politics that were ahead of its time.

And then there’s Gene. Poor Gene. Gene, as played by Christopher Meloni in the performance of his lifetime, is the PTSD-ridden Vietnam vet who serves as the cook at Camp Firewood. Throughout the film, we see Gene struggle with his own identity as someone who owns dick cream, likes to fondle his sweaters, and occasionally smears mud on his ass. But with the help of a can of vegetables voiced by the inimitable H. Jon Benjamin, Gene overcomes his various insecurities. His powerful arc comes to a head in a beautiful coming-out scene. Gene uses his newfound self-confidence for good, teaching camp counselor Coop Cooperberg (The Big Sick director Michael Showalter) how to come out of his own shell, in the film’s most beautiful montage sequence.

Which brings us to Coop’s briefly-requited romance with Marguerite Moreau’s Katie. Who can forget Coop’s Jerry Maguire moment, when he declares that he loves it that sometimes Katie is late for shul for no reason? He doesn’t even care that she’s bowlegged and bilingual! Or when Katie generously offers to give Coop her sweatshirt when he’s cold? Or when Coop gives Katie the flannel off his back when he realizes that she’s cold because he’s wearing her sweatshirt? Who can forget the tragic moment when Katie leaves Coop for Paul Rudd’s Andy, because, as Katie tells Coop in a tour de force monologue from Moreau, “Andy is really hot. And don’t get me wrong, you’re cute too, but Andy is like, cut. From marble. He’s gorgeous. He has this beautiful face and this incredible body, and I genuinely don’t care that he’s kinda lame. I don’t even care that he cheats on me. And I like you more than I like Andy, Coop, but I’m 16. And maybe it’ll be a different story when I’m ready to get married, but right now, I am entirely about sex. I just wanna get laid. I just wanna take him and grab him and fuck his brains out, ya know? So that’s where my priorities are right now. Sex. Specifically with Andy and not with you.” Talk about human drama.

I think it’s pretty clear that Wet Hot American Summer is second to none in the drama department, don’t you? One could make a decent case for The Lion King’s dramatic supremacy, I suppose, but I’d ask you to take a gander at Janeane Garofalo’s bravura performance as a camp director looking for a phone and get back to me if you really think anything in The Lion King matches up. Forget Mufasa for a second and watch this immeasurably sad scene wherein David Hyde Pierce’s character explains to a bunch of children that being an associate professor means that he’s “less than.” Game set and match.

What about Action, you may ask. Surely Wet Hot American Summer can’t beat Star Wars on that score. To that, I say: don’t call me Shirley. But what about the dino attacks in Jurassic Park, I can already hear you asking. Or the high-seas Depp action of Pirates of the Caribbean?

You’d never know it from the film’s position in the larger cultural conversation, but Wet Hot American Summer is not only one of the funniest, most dramatic summer movies ever made, it’s also a wild ride full of action, intrigue, and suspense. Take, for example, this exciting motorcycle chase sequence:

Or the talent show sequence, which contains some classic superheroism and meteor prevention:

Or this scene, which includes both (a) a kid drowning due to gross negligence, and (b) the dastardly coverup:

There’s no getting around it. Wet Hot American Summer is simply better all around than any of the other summer movies being bandied about this week. Spider-Man 2 is great, sure, but it’s not as great as the movie that navigates around cliches by simply having its characters decide that cliches are bad and that we shouldn’t do them anymore. Jaws is a classic, but can it beat this? (Yes, I know, I’m recycling clips now, but we’re talking about Jaws here so I needed a heavy-hitter.)

But here’s what this all comes down to: none of these other movies is as quintessentially summer as Wet Hot American Summer. It doesn’t just have “summer” in its name. It didn’t just hit theaters in the summer of 2001. It is about summer, through and through. Not a single one of the other 15 movies participating in Debate Week can say the same. Therefore, Wet Hot American Summer is the best summer movie of all time.

In closing, I’d like to borrow a phrase from Paul Rudd’s Wet Hot character: “seriously, fuck off. I’m sick of talking about this with you.”

The artwork for #DebateWeek was created by the wonderful Eileen Steinbach, whose work can be found on her website and on Twitter @sg_posters.

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Filmmaker and freelance critic. Member, Boston Online Film Critics Association. Find me on Twitter or at The Playlist. The best movie of 2017 was A GHOST STORY.