If you're reading this review of Hot Rod, you are likely on the internet, which means you have probably seen previous work by filmmakers Andy Samberg
(star), Jorma Taccone
(co-star), and Akiva Schaffer
(director), whose Saturday Night Live snippets have been passed around the web almost as much as quotes misattributed to George Carlin
. And if you've read other reviews of Hot Rod anywhere, you've heard about how Samberg and company went from minor online sensation (as part of video-comedy troupe The Lonely Island) to SNL staff (Samberg performs, Taccone and Schaffer write) to SNL internet ambassadors (most famously for the rap video "Lazy Sunday") to, finally, a keen summer job translating their sketch-comedy sensibility to the big screen.
But the appeal of Hot Rod is simpler than viral internet paradigm shifts: it is a very silly movie with a nature equal parts good and strange. Samberg plays Rod, who we infer from other characters to be a twentysomething, but who based on demeanor, ambition, and Samberg's crooked, sometimes crazed smile may be as young as 12. Rod's goal of becoming a much-loved, professional, stand-alone stuntman is such a deliberate anachronism that it's almost completely original, if not for the faintly memorable existence of Evel Knieval -- an existence that gives Rod a lot of hope (his deceased father's profession is explained as more or less Knieval's understudy). Article continues below
Rod lives at home with his mother (Sissy Spacek) and his hard-ass stepfather Frank (Ian McShane
), with whom Rod has a standing weekly appointment to physically fight; he seems to have the vague idea that fame and fortune as a professional stuntman will coincide with his ability to best Frank and prove himself a man.
Accordingly, Rod spends his between-fight time training for and failing at a variety of small-scale stunts, such as jumping the local pool on a mini-motorbike, flanked by a crew: his younger half-brother Kevin (Taccone), and his friends Dave (Bill Hader
) and Rico (Danny McBride
). The girl next door, Denise (Isla Fisher
), who seems to be living at home after college, eventually joins in, too. When Frank is in dire need of a heart transplant, though, Rod must step up his stuntwork, planning to jump 15 school buses to raise $50,000, save his stepfather, and, naturally, finally kick his ass.
I may be describing the film too much; half its fun comes from the odd, sketchy progression -- the way it pads what could easily be a 20-minute short into a feature film. But this padding is not accomplished via character development; the Hader and McBride characters, for example, aren't given much background. But both actors have an unforced, natural camaraderie with Samberg and Taccone, which allows the outlandishness -- broad slapstick, suiting-up montages -- to have root in some kind of reality. Bumbling as its members are, Team Rod represents a support system that makes the arrested adolescence a lot easier to take.
As has become custom in this sort of comedy, the main team has a lot of funny bit players backing them up: Will Arnett
bites into the toolish romantic-rival role with characteristic relish, and Samberg's "Lazy Sunday" cohort Chris Parnell gets a few minutes to extol the virtues of AM radio. Schaffer still seems to be thinking in bits and riffs rather than full scenes; the upside is his lack of inhibition when it comes to ditching narrative for something bizarre and/or hilarious, like Parnell explaining an elaborately crass tattoo.
To bridge the gaps between these more original, tangential moments (or to provide more of them), the filmmakers take a lot of inspiration from other films, especially the time-warped, small-town world of Napoleon Dynamite. That film's mis en scene -- parking lots, back roads, home-made ramps, wolf-portrait clothing -- is all over Hot Rod, albeit with a somewhat fresher-scrubbed cast in the foreground. Dynamite's Tina Majorino, for example, looked like an actual awkward teenager and was all the more touching for it; Hot Rod's Fisher never looks less than adorable in her '70s fashions and occasional backpack, embodying a game fantasy woman for Rod's nebulous 12-to-30 demographic with more effect than I'd care to admit.
That same demo may also recognize debts to the occasional wild extremes of Will Ferrell's Anchorman and the deadpan '80s parody of Wet Hot American Summer. These aren't bad influences for a comedy, though, and Samberg makes such a convincing child-man (I mean it as a compliment that "child" should get first billing) that his absorption of the best recent comedies is actually pretty cute, like a talented kid paying tribute to his heroes. The movie may be a bizarre goof, but the effort -- second-hand material included -- is utterly sincere.