Say what you will about the current state of “Saturday Night Live,” but it’s hard to deny that they have some talented cast members. One of the most talented is Andy Samberg, who made his mark with the notorious “Lazy Sunday” sketch and the even more notorious music video parody about having something in a box. (I’m not repeating it here.) Usually an “SNL” vet has to wait a while to take a stab at the movies; it’s a testament to how fast Samberg’s career is rising that he is starring in his own feature film, Hot Rod, just two years after joining the cast of the long-running comedy show.
Samberg plays Rod Kimble, a small-town doofus who fancies himself a professional stuntman. (His acts of daring involve jumping the community pool on his bicycle.) Rod lives at home with his mother (Sissy Spacek) and stepfather Frank (nicely played by “Deadwood” star Ian McShane). The relationship between Rod and Frank is strained to say the least; they often engage in fisticuffs as a means of venting their frustration against each other. When Frank suddenly gets sick and needs a heart transplant, Rod decides to earn the money to pay for it by putting on a public show in which he will jump fifteen school busses. His decision isn’t based on altruism, but rather on a desire to get Frank well enough to engage in more fighting.
With the help of his “team” (i.e. loser buddies), Rod puts himself through an extensive training program/fund-raising drive to prepare for the stunt. Or at least that’s what he thinks he’s doing. His only distraction comes from the newest member of the team: longtime crush Denise (Isla Fisher). What a hot babe like Denise is doing hanging around a bunch of over-grown man-boys is a potentially interesting comic mystery that the film never really bothers to explore. Nevertheless, she provides Rod with just enough inspiration to hang in there when it seems like the stunt may not come off.
There is dumb and then there is dumb. I like dumb movies sometimes. Dumb is okay. Dumb, on the other hand, is not. Hot Rod is dumb. It knows it’s dumb, it wants to be dumb, and I accept it on that level. The film has the same kind of spirit that can often be found in the work of Will Ferrell (who this picture was originally developed for). The formula is pretty simple: take one clueless-but-well-intentioned hero, surround him with oddball supporting characters, and throw them all into a series of purposefully goofy situations. The difference is that Will Ferrell’s movies often take the formula to the next level. Consider Talladega Nights, which had stronger sidekicks and a plot that actually developed, even amidst all the insanity.
Hot Rod, conversely, is basically just a one-joke movie, although it at least finds some variations on the joke (or, just as often, takes an occasional detour from the joke). Some of the stuff that takes place in the film is pretty funny. A musical riff on the expression “cool beans” had me laughing particularly hard, as did a non-sequitur involving a guy who likes to dance. Hod Rod also has the single funniest pratfall I’ve ever seen in a movie. Samberg has a particular knack for absurd humor, which is well suited to the format of a dumb comedy. (Because, in case you didn’t know, you have to be smart to do dumb, while it takes a genuinely dumb person to do dumb.) I like the way the comedian and his writing/directing colleagues take the humor in unexpected directions. When a note-perfect spoof of Footloose appears out of nowhere, it’s hilarious precisely because it does come out of nowhere while still seeming to somehow fit.
I have to say, though, that despite some really hilarious moments, Hot Rod is a strange movie. About half of the jokes in it made me laugh or at least giggle, while the other half of the jokes fell flat on their face. The movie is funny, but not consistently so. A great comedy has rhythm. The jokes are balanced throughout so that you laugh on a regular basis, and the cumulative effect is undeniable. This one has a big laugh followed by a dead spot, followed by another big laugh and another dead spot. For every joke that worked, there was one that didn’t. It could have used another screenplay revision to sharpen some of the things that don’t quite work. The situations could have been more developed, Rod could have had to face more comic conflict, and the side characters could have added more flavor to the story. (Poor Isla Fisher, who was so hysterical in Wedding Crashers has nothing to do here but stand around and look pretty.) Rod’s lame “stunts” and delusional ego are funny, yet they would have been even funnier in a film where they had more to play off.
Still, this is a decent first effort from Andy Samberg, and I have some affection for the movie, even if it comes off more as Ricky Bobby-lite than as a classic character-establishing masterpiece. Now that the comedian has established himself on the big screen, let’s hope his next picture ups the ante a little bit. After all, Evel Knievel himself wanted to jump the Grand Canyon.
( 1/2 out of four)
Hot Rod is rated PG-13 for crude humor, language, some comic drug-related and violent content. The running time is 1 hour and 28 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: Hot Rod
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