When Watchmen came out, it marked my formal introduction into films that people either loved or hated. There was little in the way of indifferent responses to the movie. Essentially, you either loved the movie and thought it was one of (if not the greatest) superhero films of all time or you thought it was boring and pointless and as my sister referred to it “a three hour segment of my youth I’ll never get back.” Generally, these kinds of films elicit either a “got it” or “didn’t get it” reaction from audiences (though some of Watchmen‘s haters tended to hate seeing their beloved graphic novel poorly displayed on the big screen though I essentially thought it was a frame for frame recreation). Last night, I watched 2001’s Wet Hot American Summer which seemed to feature almost every single B-List comedy actor who would eventually feature in some small or large role in a Judd Apatow film, and it appears to be nearly as divisive as Watchmen. While I would certainly never call this one of the greatest comedies ever (or even a great comedy), it was still a raucous and absurdist parody of the camp genre of the 1980’s and I laughed my ass off the entire film. At the same time, my dad just thought it was stupid, and that seems to be the generally divided reactions to the film. Well, if you appreciate truly surreal and off-kilter comedy, this hidden cult classic might be for you.

In 1981, summer is coming to an end at Camp Firewood, a Jewish summer camp in Maine. It’s the last day of camp, and everyone is itching to find that special someone to share the night with. Told almost exclusively through the eyes of the camp’s counselors, Wet Hot American Summer is over-the-top and outrageous satire of films like Meatballs and Heavyweights. Camp Director Beth (Janeane Garofalo) has the hots for dorky astrophysicist Henry (Frasier‘s David Hyde Pierce). Coop (Michael Showalter) hasn’t found a girl all summer, and while trying to receive relationship advice from gorgeous Katie, they form a romantic bond even though she’s dating bad boy Andy (Role Model‘s Paul Rudd). You’ve got the potentially psychotic Vietnam War veteran Gene (Oz‘s Christopher Meloni in the role that steals the whole film) as well as Ben (The Hangover‘s Bradley Cooper) and Susie (Parks and Recreation‘s Amy Poehler) who are organizing the talent show and think they’re directing Broadway. Over the course of this last day, counselor’s make out, campers go generally unsupervised, and everyone tries to get laid.

One of the real selling points of this film is that it is a who’s who of under-appreciated comedy character actors. In addition to the littany of names I mentioned below, you have A.D. Miles who played the enthusiastic Big Brother in Role Models. There’s Ken Marino who you may recognize from Reno 911 as well as Role Models. Joe La Truglio who was the squeaky gym trainer in I Love You, Man as well as the creepy party guy in Superbad plays a counselor who gets involved in a hilariously epic motorcycle chase. Elizabeth Banks has a small role in this film before she ever got famous, and one can’t help but wonder if the use of KISS’s “Beth” during a moment in this film had anything to do with its inclusion in the other Paul Rudd/Elizabeth Banks feature, Role Models.  Fans of I Love The (Insert Decade Here) programs on VH1 will enjoy seeing Michael Ian Black as Bradley Cooper’s homosexual lover. Sam Levine (Bill on Freaks and Geeks) even voices the host of the camp’s radio show, and no one will be able to forget Molly Shannon as the recently divorced arts teacher of the camp who finds redemption through her campers.

What really sells the movie for me though is simply how absurd and surreal it can be. When it first begins, you don’t really know exactly what kind of movie this is going to be, and you would be forgiven for thinking during it’s first 20 minutes or so that you were watching a conventional summer camp film. However, some of the camper’s leave to go to town for a bit, and from that point forward, it becomes the movie’s goal to see just how far they can push things and just how outrageous the next joke can be. Whether it’s driving campers off away from the camp and throwing them out of moving vehicles so they don’t know one of the kids died or going into town and becoming heroin junkies or stopping a comet from hitting the camp with a Dungeons and Dragons D20 or a Kenyan marathon runner showing up during the capture the flag segment, this movie firmly cements itself as crazy satire. The silly tone almost never lets up and while certain jokes fall flat, this movie is still consistently hilarious once you actually figure out what kind of movie you’re watching, and any moment that Christopher Meloni was on screen was pure comedy gold.

If you need conventional jokes and punchlines or a story that needs to make any semblance of a sense and a setting that is rooted in anything resembling real life situations, this isn’t for you. But if you’re a fan of intentionally outlandish and surreal comedy (Monty Python for example), then you should eat this movie up. It was lambasted by critics when it came out (Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Glieberman almost the sole exception), but it’s developed a loyal cult following over the years, and now I’m a convert. Few movies are willing to take themselves so lightly and in such a deliberately silly manner that it’s great to know there are still comedies out there that aren’t afraid to be truly unique and out there. It wasn’t a perfect film as I’ve said, and when the jokes didn’t work, they failed hard, but for the most part, few films have been able to make me laugh so hard with such bizarre material and I can’t think of many better compliments.

Final Score: B+