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The stupidity of Wet Hot American Summer holds up

Plus, everything else Polygon watched this weekend

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paul rudd sings a song on his guitar in wet hot american summer: first day at camp Image: Neflix

It’s OK to laugh.

There’s an argument that this isn’t the time for escapism, that we need to confront what’s going on with as much force as possible, but there’s also an argument that every person deserves Ken Marino leading kids to their doom, Amy Poehler and Bradley Cooper in chipper musical mode, a talking can of vegetables, and Paul Rudd flopping around a summer camp cafeteria. Wet Hot American Summer is timeless and also urgent. And as our own Emily Heller learned this week, even Netflix’s Wet Hot prequel and sequel shows are still quality. Nonsense still has a place in this weird new world we live in.

Wet Hot American Summer wasn’t the only thing those of us at Polygon watched this weekend. Below, we’ve collected our other favorites from the weekend, in hopes of offering a suggestion or two of what you should watch this week. Be sure to let us know in the comments what you enjoyed over the weekend, too.

Wet Hot American Summer

Image: Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Much to my chagrin, my husband is not much of a binge-watcher But after we watched Wet Hot American Summer on a whim Saturday night, then spent all of Sunday mainlining the two Netflix series, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp and Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later. All of them are delightful, though the movie and the prequel series are pretty damn perfect. Ten Years Later doesn’t quite recapture the magic, but has one of the funniest series endings I’ve ever seen.

Wet Hot American Summer is gleefully, wonderfully stupid in the absolute best way. It’s so densely packed with jokes that there’s always something new to laugh at on each rewatch. This time I lost my mind at Paul Rudd’s character Andy dramatically cleaning up the plate of waffles that he threw on the floor.

Created by David Wain and Michael Showalter of the sketch comedy group The State, Wet Hot American Summer is closer to a series of sketches than a cohesive narrative. Part of the fun of First Day of Camp, then, is in how far Wain and Showalter go to explain some of the movie’s dumbest jokes. For example, when the prequel series dropped onto Netflix in 2015, a friend was furious that a character was able to use the phone in the kitchen, since it’s broken in the movie. Sure enough, a few episodes later the phone gets destroyed by a thrown frying pan.

I also just love it when it’s clear how much fun actors had making a movie. Wet Hot American Summer was filmed in 2000 on a shoestring budget, and starred the likes of Paul Rudd, Bradley Cooper, and Elizabeth Banks at the very beginning of their careers. It’s nice to see that all of them made time to come back for the prequel series 15 years later. It also led to some great goofs: Bradley Cooper’s character is revealed to be “DJ Ski Mask” in the prequel series, and in the sequel series is replaced by Adam Scott with the justification that he “fixed a deviated septum”; David Hyde Pierce video conferences in for a scene and then picks up his Emmy and walks out of frame.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone who would love Wet Hot has not already seen it enough times to memorize full scenes of dialogue, but just in case there’s anyone reading this who hasn’t, and enjoys silliness for its own sake, gentle ribbing of how embarrassing it is to be a teenager, and/or Paul Rudd, it’s one of the all-time greats. —Emily Heller

Wet Hot American Summer is available to rent on Amazon.

Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp and Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later are streaming on Netflix.

And everything else we watched this weekend...

Dawson City: Frozen Time lost film strip Image: Kino Lorber

This weekend I watched a documentary ostensibly about a few hundreds reels of nitrate film that, in 1929, were entombed in a swimming pool in Dawson City, Canada, the permafrost unintentionally preserving the highly flammable stock for decades. But director Bill Morrison can’t help but follow every loose thread, and so the documentary becomes about so much more: capitalist hawks like Fred Trump, the community appeal of local ice hockey teams, the Klondike gold rush, the early days of Hollywood, the modern days of film preservation, the passage (and impassage) of time on workers, celebrities, cities, and governments.

Some of the threads connect and pay off. Some don’t. There’s a fact-is-stranger-than-fiction vibe watching the documentary, so many big names traveled to this tiny, out-of-the-way town. And yet, the place, which Morrison presents with almost obsessive detail, can be unapologetically humdrum.

One thought I can’t shake a couple days later: Is there a better metaphor for memory than nitrate film, which can retain perfect images for over a century, but it burns so quickly and so intensely that even water can’t put it out? Much of the early silent films are lost forever, as are the buildings in which they were stored. That’s the trouble with collecting glorified kindling.

I recommend watching the film, just make time in the morning and with a big cup of coffee. This is (minus a couple bookend scenes) a silent film about silent film, forgoing voice over for the occasional block of text and the constant thrum of a score by Alex Somers. The decision is inspired. Without voice over, you see footage from these once-lost-films not as documentary materials, but as films, the way people in the turn of century saw them. They’re beautiful and alive. —Chris Plante

Dawson City: Frozen Time is streaming on the library-backed Kanopy and Mubi.

Ghost World

Thora Brich in a red cap and gown in Ghost World Image: Criterion Collection

Before the “dark comedy” label lost all meaning, Crumb director Terry Zwigoff and graphic novelist Daniel Clowes adapted Clowes’ own comic into one of the funniest, bleakest movies in the teen genre. When I saw Ghost World as an actual high schooler, it felt a bit like getting a live-action Daria movie. Was I high? We’ll never know for sure, but 15 years later, it’s so much more, weaving together hyper-detailed comedy on the level of The Simpsons with a tragic journey of identity. The film is an elegy to the rebellious Gen X dream, and a crash course in existence for all 18-year-olds who followed.

The movie stars Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson as Enid and Rebecca, two recent graduates moving in opposite directions. Rebecca has a barista gig and is eager to get her own place; Enid can’t hold a job, and is lost in the abyss of punk attitude and occupational malaise. One day, Enid pranks a lonely 40-something named Seymour (Steve Buscemi) into believing the woman of his dreams wants to meet him at a diner. The date breaks his heart, and that should be the end of it, but Enid becomes mesmerized by his hopelessness. The two eventually strike up a platonic friendship, one that, as they talk about old records, dating, and the racist history of the local fried chicken chain, has the chance to be mutually beneficial for them both — or apocalyptic. Through it all, Zwigoff uses background gags, caricature, farts, and a touch of magical realism to rip on consumer-driven capitalist culture while also wondering aloud if the rage is all bullshit. —Matt Patches

Ghost World is streaming on Amazon Prime.

Groundhog Day

Bill Murray’s character Phil gives a heartfelt on-camera speech in Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day. Image: Columbia Pictures

Technically, I watched nothing this weekend — instead, I played four different tabletop role-playing games and read a 400-page novel from 1938 start to finish, so I didn’t leave myself much viewing time. But I still want to talk about Groundhog Day, the last movie I watched that was in no way for work. I’m part of a film-review podcast that pairs up new releases with the classics they reference or resemble, and naturally, we had to revisit Groundhog Day when Hulu’s similarly themed time-loop hit Palm Springs came out.

Re-watching Groundhog Day yet again was pretty enlightening, actually! I remember it as a pretty light rom-com with a lot of goony Bill Murray slapstick and a very sincere message about living your best life, but I’d completely forgotten the mid-film dark spot where Murray’s character Phil starts trying to help an elderly homeless man, and finds out that no matter what he does, the guy dies. Not in an over-the-top dark comedic way, like in Phil’s reckless montage of despairing suicides (which is also pretty grim even when it’s silly, like when he drops a breakfast buffet toaster into his bathtub), but in a sad, lonely, long-past-saving way, with a dismissive doctor saying, “People just get old.”

I never realized before how much Groundhog Day mirrors A Christmas Carol, with a supernatural force showing a selfish man the error of his ways until he’s just delighted to wake up to a new day. But Phil’s low point, facing his own mortality through someone else’s death, so closely mirrors Scrooge facing his own grave that it was hard to miss this time around. I still think Groundhog Day’s love story is a little forced and syrupy, but in a lot of ways, the movie as a whole is smarter and sharper than I remember. Too bad it’s also the movie that left director Harold Ramis and Bill Murray not talking to each other for some 15 years, for reasons Murray apparently never explained and Ramis never understood. —Tasha Robinson

Groundhog Day is streaming on Netflix and available to rent on Amazon.

Leaving Las Vegas

leaving las vegas: nicolas cage drinks a beer underwater Image: Studio Canal

Now is not the best time to rewatch Leaving Las Vegas.

The movie contains career-best performances from Nicolas Cage, as an alcoholic who moves to Las Vegas with the stated goal of drinking himself to death, and and Elisabeth Shue, a sex worker offers some comfort and genuine affection during this dance with death, respectively. It’s a powerful look at what happens when someone has nothing left, and is done trying to find anything new to live for. Even what passes for love in this world isn’t enough to get Cage’s character to pause or reconsider his path.

That’s not to say the film makes late-stage alcoholism seem fun or cathartic; Cage is a shaking, vomiting, pained mess of a human being, and early scenes hint that his life was one much more livable, without going into what might have happened to cause him to lose it all. I have theories, but the reasons don’t really matter: He drinks because he’s an alcoholic, and the rest of the details before his death are window dressing. Anyone who has lost a loved one to alcoholism, or is in the midst of losing someone, has seen too much of this behavior to ever find it romantic or aspirational. This is a movie about a broken, self-absorbed man who has picked a lengthy way to commit suicide, and a woman who still hasn’t learned what kind of man to run from as quickly as she can.

It’s a beautiful movie, but it’s pitch black in tone and it watches its own hero kill himself with a sort of detached indifference. His decision was made before we met him, and I’d argue that no one learns much or grows during the story. Shue’s character is perhaps just as self-destructive, she’s just on a slightly longer path to death. In a world of pandemics and isolation making the struggle against addiction even harder for so many people, this is a haunting, horrific way to spend an evening. Especially since we know that any comfort these two people find with each other would be impossible in 2020: COVID-19 means that any modern retelling would end with Cage dying alone, making the movie a reminder that even drinking yourself to death has gotten worse in the past year. —Ben Kuchera

Leaving Las Vegas is available to rent on Amazon Prime.

Rogue Trip

Bob Woodruff and Mack Woodruff shake hands while on horses in Rogue Trip on Disney Plus Image: Disney Plus

In 2006, ABC correspondent Bob Woodruff was hit by a roadside bomb in Iraq, an injury that cost him a large part of the left side of his skull. His rehabilitation was lengthy, but it appears that it only strengthened the bonds between him and his family.

Rogue Trip, a new travel documentary series that premiered on National Geographic and Disney Plus on July 24, stars Woodruff and his adult son, Mack. The pair go on a globe-trotting journey to places like Pakistan and Papua New Guinea, all the while reminiscing on the event that nearly ended Bob Woodruff’s life. The show is ostensibly a No Reservations-style anthology documenting the political and social climate of these places. Woodruff regularly looks back on his own career, and the series is interlaced with snippets of his previous reporting. But the throughline of the series is the relationship between Bob and Mack.

After nearly losing his father to the career he loved, Rogue Trip is a second chance for Mack to get to know his dad. It’s less an in-your-face documentary series and more a heartwarming travelogue of a father and son reconnecting. The final episode, which takes place in Ukraine, includes Woodruff’s eldest daughter, Cathryn, and is particularly moving. I recommend watching it back-to-back with Anthony Bourdain’s episode from Ukraine, which premiered in 2011. For bonus points, check out my feature story on the Ukraine game development scene from 2013. —Charlie Hall

Rogue Trip is streaming on Disney Plus.

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