"Hot Rod" isn't so much a comedy as it is an exclusive clubhouse for those who define their existence by the articulation of their zany. It's a wild one, but not without its charms. And yes, I do write that with the full knowledge that Will Arnett appears in the film.
Rod (Andy Samberg) is a wannabe stuntman, spending his time hanging with his group of friends (including Bill Hader and Jorma Taccone), executing daredevil spectacles poorly, and trying to win the heart of his neighbor (Isla Fisher). When his stepfather (Ian McShane) needs $50,000 for heart surgery, Rod hopes to cash in on his talents and raise the money by clearing 15 school buses on a motorcycle. Conjuring the spirits of the animal kingdom and harvesting the power of a fake mustache, Rod begins a laborious training period to achieve his goal.
"Hot Rod" is the starring debut for Andy Samberg, an SNL player who always seems to struggle on the show expanding his irreverence past the three-minute mark. The pop culture icon behind the "Lazy Sunday" and "Dick in a Box" digital shorts (sadly, my heart belongs to the laser cats), Samberg is a performer of sizeable energy, but his range of laugh impact is a limited one. He's born from the Sandler School of the Absurd, stitching together a haphazard series of jokes and non-sequiturs to make "Hot Rod" the new king of the dorm room DVD collection.
Let's be perfectly clear here: "Hot Rod" bends over backwards to play it cool. It's a YouTube-like sampler of insider references and elongated slapstick that barely makes for a feature film; however, Samberg and his "Lonely Island" cohorts (including director Akiva Schaffer and co-star Taccone) are impossible to tire, and they land plenty of smiles, even a few bellylaughs, as they pitch the film at a tone only text-messaging zombie teens and inebriated delinquents will find the fullest appreciation for.
What bothers me about Samberg is his insistence on self-conscious comedy. "Hot Rod" is jammed with moments of cringing awareness, which ruins the fun, along with tainting the surprise element any great comedy should hold dear. When Samberg gets silly, his winky attitude trips up several of the film's better bits, as if slowly curling his tongue around absurdity will goose the giggles further. When relaxed and confident enough to allow the rest of his cast to make some funny, "Hot Rod" soars through a myriad of film references ("Footloose" gets a thorough workout), "Jackass" bodily contortion bruising, and a steaming pile of 1980's hero cheese, scored to the golden sounds of John Farnham, Europe and other pop delights.
When "Hot Rod" can locate those assured grooves, the film is fantastically entertaining and fondly recalls those early Sandler years with their anything goes mentality. "Hot Rod" touches that greatness sporadically, especially in Rod's lurid stunts and bitter hostility toward his stepfather. Other times, the film overplays its hand, a prime example found in a positively alien bit where Rod and his brother turn an exchange of "cool beans" into an impromptu hip-hop number. All I could think during that scene were those poor junior high teachers who will have to endure that routine for countless weeks once school resumes.
Andy Samberg is going to need a lot more patience with himself to be a classic comedy icon, but "Hot Rod" is an impressive start. It's a breezy farce with enough fall-down-and-go-boom tomfoolery to send the kids into fits of laughter, and contains just enough of a hipster edge to entertain the adults. At the very least, the film provides the answer to the eternal question: who would win in a fight, a grilled cheese or a taco?
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