Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd; each an actor capable of leading a summer blockbuster to financial success. But 14 years ago the story was, as might be expected, completely different. The three combined starred in the critical and financial flop Wet Hot American Summer. While the film may have been dead in the water after its trashing at the box office, it is now finding a renaissance in the new 8-part Netflix series, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp when it debuts on July 31st. But to what extent can this TV reboot be seen as a legitimate creative endeavour? Is it perhaps a lazy attempt to capitalise on a cult film that features actors that have gone on to receive global recognition?
A bit of background first – Wet Hot American Summer tells the story of a New England vacation campsite as the various characters prepare for the last day of the summer, some looking to finally indulge in some lovemaking while other desperate romantics try to articulate their unrequited love. Not all that original, it has to be said. Director David Wain saw the film both as a recollection of his own teen camp based experience as well as a parody of lacklustre sex comedies that had dominated the 1980s, such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Wet Hot American Summer was released on July 27th to theatres in less than thirty cities, opposite Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes (it seems that July 27th was a cursed day for Hollywood), making less than one third of a million dollars at the box office (against a budget six times larger) and receiving a critical mauling.
The cult following took some time to emerge; and only by 2008 was it being widely reported on. But the 2001 film itself seems to have gained its cult status not through ‘So Bad It’s Good’ film-making, (as was the case with The Room), nor through under-appreciated genius (such as, for example, films like Donnie Darko that continue to astound). Instead, the cult status of Wet Hot American Summer comes through fortunate casting choices. Bradley Cooper and Amy Poehler, for instance, barely feature in the film (though Cooper has a homosexual entanglement that will leave audiences swooning), yet it is their names that bring audiences to midnight screenings at arthouse cinemas year after year.
This particular cult franchise has come not out of valid art, but instead through the luck of casting. Poorly rated comedy films like Going Overboard (1989) or Gigli (2003), as two examples, haven’t received any form of cult following, both because they aren’t funny but also because they don’t have repeatedly successful actors like Cooper or Rudd starring in them. Going Overboard, for instance, though in some ways just as comedic (or unsuccessfully comedic) as Wet Hot American Summer, is just another in the treadmill of bad Adam Sandler films. Gigli, on the other hand, stars Jennifer Lopez, who equally has had more misses than hits on her list of appearances. If Lopez and Sandler had starred in Wet Hot American Summer rather than Poehler and Cooper, it is unlikely that the film would have assumed the nostalgic role it has.
Cooper and Poehler are at the centre of the marketing for the new Netflix series, with the first photos of the show involving them, lending credence to the theory the return of Wet Hot American Summer is capitalising on the stardom of some of its actors, and thus, the cult status they have given the film. In the original film, the central characters were instead Janeane Garofalo and David Hyde Pierce, yet they seem to be altogether absent from recent photo releases and promotions.
Yet developments on the Netflix project suggest to there is more than a whiff of integrity to it given the rush of credible, chortlesome actors like Jason Schwartzman, Jon Hamm, Kristen Wiig and Chris Pine clamouring to all get a slice of the Wet Hot action. Furthermore, David Wain is returning to direct the first of the Netflix episodes and contributed significantly to the writing of others. He, alongside returning producer and writer Michael Showalter, may guarantee the series does proper service to both the cult following and the characters in the original film.
The plot of Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp does seem to make an active attempt to augment the premise of film – being set as a prequel that explores the origins of many of the characters, it elaborates on many of the stories present in the original. For example, Jason Schwartzmann is billed as playing the ‘boy’s camp head counselor’ – who exactly will he be counselling? Will it provide backstory for characters we didn’t know much about in the original? One particularly funny gimmick comes from the fact many of the original actors in the show are now a decade and a half older yet are still depicted in their original clothing, reminiscent of the original film.
This may, rather than being an exploitation of a cult culture, be a genuine labour of love. This is unsurprising given the nostalgic streak in cinema and television recently. The new Ghostbusters film is in the midst of production, and Twin Peaks is preparing itself to finally return after its hiatus, even Heroes Reborn may finally provide an adequate chapter for the franchise. Could First Day of Camp be in a similar vein? Potentially. But companies like Netflix could not exist if they provided fan service alone. The financial element must always play a part, and as nostalgic as writers, directors or actors might be, there are always those who want to see it succeed for the money it could make.
Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Summer may well be more than a cash-grabbing exercise in bringing a cult film back to screens, but let’s proceed with caution until the 31st July release, eh?