Wednesday, August 01, 2007

"Hot Rod" -- * * *

Despite doubts about why the “Lazy Sunday” guy (Andy Samberg) deserves his own movie, “Hot Rod” is often hilarious, and deserves to be mentioned alongside “Knocked Up,” “The Simpsons Movie” and “Superbad” when ‘funniest movies of the summer’ are discussed, if not exactly their equal. Contrary to an ad campaign centered around Samberg crashing into things, the movie’s absurd, profoundly strange sense of humor and non-sequiters reminded me of “Anchorman” more than anything else.

Paramount seems to have a certain amount of faith in “Hot Rod” and knows it plays with audiences, considering they’ve been screening the fuck out of it (I saw it over two months ago and they seem to be passing out screening invites to it every time I walk by a movie theater), but it’s questionable why they’re choosing to release it this coming weekend. I have a feeling “Bourne” is going to be a monster that devours everything in its path, and I think “Hot Rod’s” only real hope of making some opening-weekend bank is being the second choice of teenagers who get sold out of “Bourne.”

But then again, no matter how little the movie's take this weekend, this is a film that’s practically tailor made to thrive on DVD. Absurdist comedies with warped (and fairly stupid) sensibilities always seem to do modest business theatrically, followed by a steady life on the DVD shelf of college students everywhere, and “Hot Rod” should be no different.

Like any film related to “Saturday Night Live,” the plot isn’t really the strong point here. Our hero is Rod Kimble (Samberg), a wannabe stuntman (his father was killed in a horrific stunt-gone-wrong) who wants to impress his stepdad Frank (Al Swearengen himself, Ian McShane) by earning $50,000 to pay for his lifesaving heart transplant. Rod and Frank hate each other, but if Frank dies before Rod can build up his skills enough to beat him in a fight, Frank will think Rod a pussy forever. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

As with anything strange, “Hot Rod’s” sense of humor is going to be polarizing to audiences. Many simians drawn in by promises of generic slapstick probably won’t know what to make of the acid-trip sequence or the fistfight between a grilled cheese sandwich and a taco. By the time we get to the brief yet soon-to-be-infamous “Cool Beans” sequence, you’ll either want to walk out or completely revel in its madness. There won’t be many in-betweeners.

“Hot Rod” makes no bones about how stupid it is, but it was stupid in a way that worked just fine for me. When Rod falls down a steep hill, it’s not funny because he falls, but because he falls for what seems like minutes on end and the more repetitive it got, the funnier it got (for me). Sure the movie may close with a shit joke, but it’s a moderately funny one and closes on it in a gloriously cheesy freeze-frame.

And speaking of cheesiness, that’s “Hot Rod’s” coup de grace. Samberg and the rest of his Lonely Island team are clearly a fan of inspirational cheese from the 1980’s, as “Hot Rod” consistently feels like a film that might have come out 25 years ago, from the look of the film to the soundtrack, which features no less than five tunes from power-ballad-specialists Europe.

Sadly, a place where the movie falls short is knowing how to use its cast. Inexplicably, Sissy Spacek is in this thing, and isn’t really given anything to do. Not only is she barely in it, she isn’t even given a chance to be funny. And when Will Arnett, one of the funniest men working right now, shows up as Isla Fisher’s jerk boyfriend, he offers some laughs, but he isn’t given nearly enough screentime. One gets the feeling either his scenes ended up on the cutting room floor, or he just stopped by the set for a day or two to have some fun.

Samberg is a hilariously clueless/pathetic/likable leading man and has something vaguely resembling charm, if not actually the genuine article. McShane’s raunchy assholishness consistently made me laugh, though I can’t say that wasn’t because of the contrast with his television persona.
It’s worth noting, though, that for all the inspired lunacy, the movie’s funniest moment may belong to Chris Parnell when he shows up late in the game as an announcer preaching the wonderment that is AM radio. Again, it’s just another moment you’ll completely roll with, or completely despise.

“Hot Rod” isn’t the greatest comedy of all time, but if you have an off-kilter sense of humor, you should find plenty to laugh at. Those expecting nothing but the ad-promised slapstick will get their appetites filled, but this is a far odder beast than what you might be expecting, and I for one, look forward to watching it many more times on DVD.


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