Camp Firewood, Maine: the last day of summer camp, 1981. Director Beth (Janeane Garofalo) tries to control the chaos among her counselors, which is largely romantic. She herself is in love with Professor Henry Neuman (David Hyde Pierce), who's trying to save everyone from a hurtling piece of SKYLAB. Counselor Coop (Michael Showalter) wants Katie (Marguerite Moreau), who is too smitten with loutish, studly lifeguard Andy (Paul Rudd) to notice. Gail (Molly Shannon) has the kids in arts and crafts hypnotized by the account of her recently failed marriage. Ben (Bradley Cooper) and McKinley (Michael Ian Black) share a love that doesn't hesitate to speak its name.

Wet Hot American Summer was put together by screenwriter Showalter and director/co-writer David Wain of MTV's former sketch-comedy group, The State. It starts off well enough, with a lot of flavorsome, doubtlessly autobiographical nostalgia--that Vietnam vet of a scary camp chef; the tightly wound-up drama counselors; the desperate for sex of any-kind smell in the air--but unfortunately degenerates into flailing comic effects and that anything-for-a-laugh mentality familiar from MTV's lesser farcical efforts. The filmmakers' sketch roots show through as the movie whips along effectively for a while, but lacks an overall cohesiveness or satisfyingly organic wind-up. They just squeak by with a sequence that has the counselors driving into town for a total hard-drug binge, but worse is to come. Notions like having Andy blithely murdering kids who've witnessed his professional ineptitude, or Gail winding up with one of her pre-pubescent charges, throw you completely out of the dramatic loop, as the movie's initially sweetly reminiscent, if typically ironic, tone has not sufficiently prepared you for such sick-humor ideas. (What could?) It's really a shame, because this had a lot of charming, easily identifiable potential thrown to the winds by a smart-ass, simultaneous disregard for, and pandering to, its perceived audience. The climactic talent-show scene is staged with particular ineptitude and slack pacing.

Garofalo gives one of her better performances, more human and less bludgeoningly mordant than usual. She's ingratiatingly self-effacing and lovelorn here, subjecting herself to a horrid, hair-raising makeover in an attempt to be the seductress. She's also funny when she calls roll, stumbling over the interminable Jewish names on the list ("Rebecca Wein…stein…berger"). Rudd enjoys himself, playing a total creep, creatively flopping his body all over the place in frustration over everyone else's supposed inferiority--"Fuckin' dyke!" is his usual riposte to a romantic rejection--and exposing his teeth in a particularly gruesome manner, which Andy obviously thinks is irresistible. Pierce brings his familiar "Frasier" befuddlement to the SKYLAB episodes (the most tiresome ones in the film). Shannon, too, has her usual TV baggage here; it's a shame that this talented comedienne, like so many of her current "Saturday Night Live" cohorts, just doesn't seem to know when to rein it in a little. Amy Poehler is amusingly bitchy as the oh-so-familiar drama counselor ("People, you look like amateurs! What is this, regional theatre?"). Moreau and Marisa Ryan play near-indistinguishable big-boobed bimbos. Showalter gives himself a showy part, but it's a shame that talented Zak Orth, who is currently the best thing about the Broadway revival of Shaw's Major Barbara, is wasted in a peripheral dumb-ass role.

--David Noh