A film review by Craig J. Koban
2007, PG-13, 88 mins.
Rod Kimble: Andy Samberg / Kevin Powell: Jorma Taccone /
Denise: Isla Fisher / Dave: Bill Hader / Frank Powell:
Ian McShane / Marie Powell:
Sissy Spacek / Jonathan: Will Arnett / Rico: Danny R.
Rod Kimble is a decent-minded – albeit cataclysmically naïve and goofy – young lad. He has no job or any occupational aspirations. Hell, it does not even appear that he has ever even been to school. His real passion in life is stunts and attempting to perform all sorts of gravity defying theatrics with his bike. His idol is his biological father, who once worked for Evel Knievel and then later branched out on his own. His step dad thinks he’s an irrepressible wuss and will never attain manhood. This only fuels Rod’s deep and inner desire to become a world famous stuntman that everyone will remember. He's on a quest to attain self-awesomeness.
The problem with Rod is not with his limitless imagination and tenacious drive; his determination is kind of infectious. His faults are primarily from a skills standpoint. He's not only a bad stuntman, but a stupendously awful and hideously incompetent one at that. That’s what ultimately makes Rod a sympathetic figure. He never invites our scorn and ridicule because – gosh darn it – he seems really, really earnest and sincere with his yearning to become the next Knievel. The problem with that thinking is that no one around him – even his best friends – have the willingness to tell him that a moped will not suffice as a vehicle to jump trucks with. As the film’s hilarious – and brutal – opening sequence shows, this wimpy bike, combined with Rod’s genuine lack of talent, does not make for a recipe for success.
HOT ROD is a very funny comedy largely in part to two key factors: (a) It’s undeniably peculiar and oddball with its underlining material, but it’s never mean-spirited with the comedy it generates and (b) Andy Samberg so fluently inhabits the title role of the uber-geek with delusions of grandeur that you leave the film with a sly grin on your face. His performance as Rod is remarkably broad, but there is genuineness to it. He's the kind of character that has a sort of overstated weirdness, and the personas he exists with are equally bizarre. Like NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, HOT ROD has an offbeat, quirky appeal with its characters and story, but in its case the people in it are more likeable. With Napoleon his monumentally nerdity was almost presented as an unwanted curse; he almost deserved being ostracized by his peers. In Rod’s case, I kind of admired his unstoppable willpower and focus, even when he constantly displays what an idiot he is.
HOT ROD works by being both frequently hilarious and by showcasing Samberg’s obvious talents. With his youthful good looks, floppy, curly locks that remind me of Harpo Marx, and a childlike innocence and vigor, Samberg is able to generate large laughs with relative ease. He’s only 27, but he has already established himself as one of the most promising young comics around. His career was spawned not in nightclubs, but on the Internet. Alongside his Berkeley, California buddies Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer they established "The Lonely Island" that made a quick name for themselves doing comedy shorts online. SNL producers noticed, and Samberg joined the ranks of the show. SNL has been a real mixed bag over the last few years, which is kind of euphemistic phrasing on my part for saying that it has really blown. However, the best thing to emerge on the struggling variety show has been Samberg, who – alongside SNL regular Chris Parnell – created a digital short for the show called “Lazy Sunday”, which was a rap song sung by two white Manhattanites on their quest to see THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA. An unapologetic riot, that short became an Internet sensation and quickly put Samberg on the map. Other equally hilarious shorts would come afterwards, such as ones involving a young Chuck Norris and – in my personal favorite – he cast Natalie Portman in a hardcore rap video where she displayed her raw, animalistic side and ripped into young STAR WARS fans (and fantasizing men) that idolize her.
Now comes HOT ROD, executive produced by former SNL'er Will Ferrell and featuring a re-teaming of Sandberg, Taccone and Schaffer (the latter directed the film, the former co-stars as Samberg’s half brother). What’s instantly clear with the film is that it's a parade of buffoonery and overall simpleminded stupidity. It’s one of those comedies that seems blissfully unconventional, often throwing out cadence and narrative flow out the door. There's not much of a story or arc to the film, not to mention that nothing really compelling happens. What it does do – and does with expediency and assuredness – is provide a series of comedic vignettes that mix klutzy bravado, pop culture sarcasm, over-the-top sight gags, and a refreshingly kooky and spirited bit of 80’s nostalgia. The film is bumbling in its complete idiocy, but its funny…very funny…because of its brain-dead appeal. This is one of the first films that is inspired by the YouTube generation.
Rod (Samberg) has one of the most complex and…well…emotionally distressing relationships with his step-father, Frank (Ian McShane, in a droll performance). You see, Frank is a pure bred a-hole to Rod. Since he is not his biological father, Frank treats Rod like a piece of sticky gum that accidentally attaches itself to his shoe. He refuses to acknowledge Rod’s maturity and manhood in general. On a weekly basis Rod puts on all sorts of protective gear to meet his step-dad in the basement of their suburban home in hopes of finally kicking the tar out of him. Unfortunately for Rod, he's a hopelessly inferior fighter to the wise old grisly force that is Frank. Frank, of course, refuses to respect Rod, but only will if he manages to prove that he can better him in a fistfight. Rod, an aspiring stunt man, can’t convince him that easily.
Tragedy strikes when Frank gets terminally ill and requires one of those “conveniently priced” (as stated in one of the film’s best deadpanned lines) heart transplants costing $50,000. Bad part is that Frank’s HMO will not cover the cost. Not realizing that one phone call to his HMO with a veiled threat to reveal their lack of assistance to Michael Moore could have saved Frank, Rod engages in a wicked plan. He wants to raise money so that he can plan the jump of a lifetime, a motorcycle leap over 15 school buses. Why 15? Well, because Knievel jumped 14. How Rod has this epiphany occurs during one of the film’s most uproarious sequences, which is a send up of a very famous dance montage in FOOTLOOSE. After a dance-tantrum, which culminates in one of the wackiest falls down a mountain ever, Rod realizes his destiny.
What’s interesting is the motivation behind Rod’s plan. He does not want to raise the $50,000 in hopes of saving his step-dad’s life. What he really desires is to raise the 50K to save his dad’s life in hopes of finally beating him lifeless during one of their weekly sparring contests (“How can I beat ya to death if you're already dead,” he pitifully screams to him at one point). Realizing that his drive to pummel his healthy dad to a bleeding and bruised pulp is so insatiable, Rod gets some help from his buddies Kevin (Jorma Taccone), Rico (Danny R. McBride), and Dave (Bill Hader) and subsequently is befriended by the town babe, Denise (Isla Fisher, a real life babe) to raise some start up cash to bring his dream of being a grade-A stuntman – and future father beater – to fruition.
Let’s just say that his money making schemes occur in some of the film’s funniest sequences. To raise the money, Rod reduces himself to all sorts of humiliating stunt work. At one child’s birthday party he sets himself on fire and is forced to use fruit punch and lemonade to put himself out. He tries – an embarrassingly fails – at jumping a swimming pool with his moped. Another party has him hanging upside down while the kids whack at him like a pinata. To make matters even more difficult, he starts to develop a serious crush on Denise, but she's dating an absolute pig-headed man (Will Arnett, comic gold in just about any part). Will Rod successful jump the 15 cars, get the $50,000, win the love of Denise, and get the opportunity to beat his step-dad into a coma?
Is Natalie Portman a badass bitch?
At times, it's apparent that HOT ROD seems similar to JACKASS in the way it showcases idiots partaking in silly and moronic stunts that involve inflicting bodily harm on themselves. Yet, JACKASS was a cringe-worthy endurance test in bad taste, whereas HOT ROD is more of a throwback comedy with dim-witted and likeable characters parading around in a swarm of 1980’s references (subtle winks to the before mentioned FOOTLOOSE inspire giggles, as do echoes of THE KARATE KID; the film also is wall-to-wall with 80’s tunes from bands like Europe). Many scenes inspire bountiful laughs, such as one where Sandberg and Taccone’s repetition of the phrase “cool beans” develops into a pseudo little musical interlude. Another bit of linguistic comic merriment occurs when Rod tries to convince all his friends that he is the only one that likes to party. There are also smaller moments that generate huge chuckles, like a Tai-chi training exercise, a dream sequence where Rod is in heaven and sees a fist fight between a taco and a grill cheese sandwich, and a closing moment with Arnett as he sheepishly tries to win back the love of Denise as she walks out on him. Bill Hader has an extremely amusing moment when he reveals the result of a wicked accident.
Then there is Samberg himself, who leaps headfirst into the film’s puzzling smorgasbord of ridiculous stunts, pummeling fistfights, and unapologetically dumb pratfalls that eventually command a kind of befuddling respect. Not all of the jokes work and some fall flat on the faces, but there is no denying Samberg’s willingness to pull out all the stops. Even when the film teeters well over the top – as is the case with the shot involving his climatic school bus jump – you'll find yourself laughing too hard to even begin to question the film’s oddity. HOT ROD is the kind of silly and preposterous comedy that seems like it was made by a bunch of college kids with a video camera that had nothing better to do. Yet, calling it an 88-minute amalgamation of the best parts of YouTube is kind of fitting, because the film joyously embraces its juvenile vibe and low-witted sensibilities. Ultimately, a very amusing performance by Samberg, a bewildering number of absurdist sight gags and jokes, not to mention a youthful pluck and enthusiasm to the whole proceedings, makes HOT ROD very appealing comedy. The film may be randomly moronic and insipid, but is it ultimately spirited and funny?