The Ever-Present Past
Hot Rod / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | August 4, 2007 | Comments ()
Of all the films inspired by or starring “Saturday Night Live” cast members — and believe me, it’s quite the ignoble list — Hot Rod is the first one to completely deconstruct the notion that a story’s narrative should have consequences. Even classics in the field like Tommy Boy were too shy to completely commit to their humor, opting to tack it onto semi-dramatic plot points that needed to be resolved, e.g., Tommy actually had to get out there and sell those damn brake pads. And don’t forget the mother of all bad choices in combining comedy with drama: Dumb and Dumber1, which contained both a scene of explosive diarrhea and one of the leads getting shot and apparently killed before it was revealed he was wearing a bulletproof vest. But not so, Hot Rod: The flimsy plot is completely irrelevant here, and is merely a platform to let star Andy Samberg goof off on camera for 90 surprisingly long minutes. The film ostensibly deals with Rod (Samberg), an amateur stuntman who attempts to use his skills to raise money to save his dying stepdad, but the story’s surrealist touches and terribly blatant winks at certain subgenres of 1980s teen flicks keep it from being anything other than one very extended sketch for Samberg. And therein lies the problem: By abandoning all but the most token adherence to a plot, Samberg’s attempt to free himself winds up weighing him down, because with nothing to care about, all the film has to offer are a few pratfalls and sight gags, and winds up being so insubstantial that it barely rises to the level of forgettable.
Rod is a low-level daredevil who dreams of one day being a stuntman like his father, who used to crew for Evel Knievel and died when Rod was just a boy. Now in his mid-20s, Rod still lives at home with his brother, Kevin (Jorma Taccone), mother Marie (Sissy Spacek), and stepfather Frank (Ian McShane). Rod spends his days attempting to perform small-scale stunts with the assistance of Kevin and fellow crewmembers Dave (Bill Hader) and Rico (Danny R. McBride). From the start, the film’s tone hovers between giving a knowing wink at its source material and mocking it outright; when Rod tries to compliment a girl by saying, “You look pretty,” only for her to ask him to repeat himself, he panics and says, “Uh, I said you look shitty,” then bolts. It’s not without its charms, but it’s also just as obvious a joke as the classic misinterpretation interplay that the film is trying to send up.
Rod’s stepfather hates him, and the two engage in weekly physical combat that Rod hopes will one day prove to Frank that he’s a real man; Frank, of course, beats Rod every time. But eventually, arbitrarily, Frank gets sick, and in order to pay for the heart transplant that will keep him alive long enough so that Rod can finally beat him up, Rod sets out to raise money to fund a stunt in which he’ll jump over 15 school buses, and the proceeds from that will get Frank the heart transplant he so randomly needs. Along the way, Rod eventually reconnects with his neighbor, Denise (Isla Fisher), who’s so blandly drawn that her character’s attainability is dulled by her two-dimensional nature, though that doesn’t stop Rod from falling in love with her in one of the film’s few nods to convention.
Samberg’s affability keeps the film from being unwatchable, but his niceness can’t compensate for the fact that he’s not quite at the Will Ferrellian level where he can carry a story this thin on charm alone. Fisher does what she’s here to do, which is pout her lips and wear snug T-shirts and fall in love with Rod for no reason. The strong supporting cast likewise does more work than you realize at first, and it’s only the sporadic appearances of Will Arnett as Denise’s caveman boyfriend or the one-liners from McBride (aka Bust-Ass in the fantastic All the Real Girls) that help the film sputter across the finish line instead of keeling over dead halfway through.
The rest of the plot, such as it is, unfolds with a bored predictability, as if it was all credited screenwriter Pam Brady could do to march Rod through a few minor setbacks and triumphs on his way to victory. Most of the scenes end in one of three ways: (a) they just kind of end (this happens a lot); (b) they devolve into bizarre riffs on how to screw with film, as in the scene where Rod and Kevin mend a fight by saying “Cool beans” back and forth dozens of times, their jerky words edited into a pseudo-beatbox; or (c) the most popular choice, which is when the action slides into another ’80s parody, like when Rod gets so fed up with his stepdad that he drives out to the woods and dances away his rage, similar to Kevin Bacon’s rage-dance therapy sessions in Footloose. It’s a tired joke that people have been making for years, and indicative of a larger problem, namely, the fact that the story is set in present day but Samberg and company are content to dress and act like it’s still 1987, meaning they’re actually living these weird fantasies firsthand even as they retroactively mock them.
Director Akiva Schaffer, a member of The Lonely Island comedy troupe with Samberg and Taccone, is content to let Samberg do his own thing here, and that usually means self-indulgent reinterpretations of older movies. The primary inspiration for Hot Rod are the C-grade 1980s movies that dealt with extreme sports, most notably Rad, an often cheesy and jaw-droppingly weird movie about BMX racers from 1986. (There are many, many clips online.) But movies like Rad and its ilk were doing their thing unintentionally, and it’s only with the hindsight cherished by detached hipsters that the films are regarded as ironically comedic. It’s one thing to make a movie that winds up being funny after the fact, and it’s another to fashion a joke out of endless references to that unintentional humor and hope that a recycled power ballad will hold it all together. Instead of poking fun at its characters or using their interactions to drive the laughs, Hot Rod merely hopes that you’re as willing as Samberg is to find it entertaining when comedians re-enact movie scenes from 20 years ago with a meta-narrative nudge to your ribs. Samberg is pleading for laughs here, and there’s nothing less funny than desperation.
1. Yes, I know Dumb and Dumber isn’t “SNL”-related. But I needed it to prove my point. So, deal.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.