The Fall of Stella

Netflix released Wet Hot American Summer: 10 Years Later (henceforth WHAS:10YL) at a time when we could all use a comedic interlude.  Nuclear threats on the news have made laughter more important than ever to those of us who believe in the healing power of comedy.  Wain, Showalter and Black have long been consistent sources for hilarity beginning with their web series and throughout their individual stand-up careers.

Stella for years was the perfect hybrid of raunchy nonsense and self-awareness.  Any time they felt like the direction of the narrative was too familiar, they would insert a graphic sexual reference, ham up the dialogue to a silliness that made us who watched felt like we were inside the joke, and insert background music that usually did not match the absurdity of what was happening.  The State's sketch comedy was another success.  They were lovable in their offensiveness.  They would make allusions to things like domestic violence and racism with the knowledge that none of that shit is cool, but when we can recreate those moments during poorly shot comedic videos of which the audience will only be those who are "in the know," you can get away with those kinds of matters.

WHAS was the cinematic form of what we had come to expect.  Made on a shoe-string budget, the movie was hilarious.  While it didn't receive much appreciation from mainstream critics (Roger Ebert famously hated that film), it was a continuation of what we expected from the Stella crew.  WHAS:10YL represents the fall from grace that has long been looming for Wain, Showalter and Black.

If you watch it late enough at night, stoned, alone and feeling sorry for not utilizing your earlier years, you may channel nostalgia with excitement at the familiar faces.  The material of the film (the jokes, that is) are not funny.  The material is so bland it feels like it was written by someone other than the original crew.  As it turns out, it was, although we cannot throw all our blame on the alternates.

Members of the cast look downright disappointed that they even showed up to the shoot.  Everyone is older and the magic spark of enthusiasm within everyone's faces has been replaced by a tepid walk through their lines.  Bardley Cooper didn't show up, presumably for scheduling conflicts, and while Adam Scott is more than capable as Cooper's replacement, I don't remember being so underwhelmed by one of Scott's performances.

The highs are usually crushed by the spiritless lows.  Gerofolo has returned as the counselor, but they forgot to write her in such a way that we would care.  She appears on screen only to sputter and whir before she disappears.  The Black and Showalter, as Bush, Sr. and Reagan respectively, not only have poor impersonations but their dialogue goes no where.

The romance between Coop and Katie, once both the agony of youth written with the "not really important" attitude of adults towards them, is now uninspired and forced.  They write dialogue between the two of them that demonstrates they had no interest of raising the awareness up to people in their twenties.  If it is my fault for believing that the charm of the original film could be captured in furthering the progress of the lives of the characters, and so I throw myself onto the altar of hopeless optimism that these guys could keep their material fresh and interesting.

About the only one who really showed up is Poehler, Marino, and Lo Truglio.  These three jump back into their roles with familiar zest.  Wain's infertile Israeli and Lake Bell who seeks the virgin's seed are brilliant once they done their Negev desert shawls during the impregnation ceremony.  But the path to get these fruits is long and arid.  If I wasn't watching from my bed on a dismal afternoon, there is no way watching this mini-series would beat going for a walk down the street.

So what's wrong here: is it that the actors had disagreements prior to the shoot that weren't resolved?  Did the script really stink that much?

I think it's something far graver.  With the Stella formula dampened by complacency, this thing sucks because everyone has hard time knowing which way to go.  Without the heart, the quips are completely dead.  The youthful jubilation of WHAS has been replaced with the sleep-walking motions of people who wish they could bury characters who they feel like they are instead obliged to keep alive.  Showalter has made efforts to put himself far and away from the kind of material featured prominently within WHAS (see his film The Baxter or his periodic writing for evidence), and it strikes me that he is one of, if not the most, disappointed co-creators coming back to the franchise.   

Screenwriters Wain and Showalter do not make an effort to engage with where the world we occupy is.  For that reason, we are traveling down an insulated path that is off everyone's radar.  Keeping things fresh isn't merely something producers advise for writers in order to gain wider appeal.  Comedy this timid is for people who are too tired to go see a movie at their local cinema and don't watch Full Frontal with Samantha Bee for fear of hearing something too political.

What happens next is up to them.  There must be a strong base of twenty-thirty somethings who still will devour whatever WHAS themed material is thrown their way.  Knowledge of this base may be what sparked this half-baked iteration to be released.  I'm one of them, but this was something beyond forgiveness.  Much like my attachment with other franchises from youth, I will continue to consume future manifestations of WHAS because, simply, they own part of my soul.  I don't watch the new Star Wars films because I anticipate them being great, but because I have involuntarily entered a pact with the creators of these franchises wherein I support them because I believe in the characters and the original story they told.  They let me down precisely because I continuously believe that they won't.

The problem with WHAS is it's starting to look like a bunch of campers who refused to grow up.

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