We don’t get a ton of originality in studio comedies any longer. So, when the proposition of another Saturday Night Live picture was put on the table in the form of Hot Rod, it’s easy to comprehend why the movie was roundly rejected at the box office in August ‘07. While the Lonely Island were offering up original characters never seen in any SNL sketch (after re-writing Pam Brady’s script to fit their own oddball comedic sensibilities), Lorne Michaels’ name listed as a producer didn’t ensure much beyond the usual studio shenanigans. Yet Hot Rod is one of the most hysterical comedies to be released in the last decade, chaotically careening from one gag to the other with only the barest air of plot holding the entire endeavor together. It’s too legit to quit.
The thing is – that storyline becomes oddly touching, as stuntman dreamer Rod (Andy Samberg), in an attempt to prove to his ailing tough guy stepfather (Ian McShane) that he’s worthy of his affection, sets up the biggest feat in his town’s history as a fundraiser. It’s a weird funny man riff on the Rocky underdog trope, complete with insane musical numbers and anti-comedy breakdowns where Samberg and Jorma Taccone (playing Rod’s younger brother) remix the phrase “Cool Beans” until your brain is ready to explode. Hot Rod is a movie that has zero right being as good as it is, and whose quality is bolstered by the bizarre casting coup of Sissy Spacek as Rod’s doting mama. To label it anything less than comedic genius would call a person’s sense of humor into serious question.
It certainly helps that the supporting cast could carry their own movie without any effort whatsoever. Danny McBride’s Rico is a live wire maniac, setting off fireworks he finds in public restrooms and assaulting people with traffic cones while screaming about how jacked up on green tea he is. Acting as Rod’s other other right hand man is Bill Hader’s Dave, who takes acid handed out by roller rink coworkers, gives the name Voltron when he orders burgers at the gang’s local lunch hut, and gets a massive piece of metal lodged in his head at one point while tripping balls. Gyrating his ass off to try and join the team is Richardson (Simon Tam), who won’t stop doing that fucking pelvic dance while distributing flyers for Rod’s big jump. Hot Rod’s side players are allowed to be so out of their minds that every scene is a nonsensical delight, each joke both contrasting and compounding with the one that came before.
Being a sports film (sort of) scored to faux Beverly Hills Cop music (Trevor Rabin’s OST is a loony tunes throwback to the '80s), there has to be a love story. The girl of Rod’s dreams is Denise (Isla Fisher), who is weirdly attracted to his juvenile way of life and is the only girl to ever get inducted into the partying crew. But Denise is dating Jonathan (Will Arnet), the bro-y corporate douche who won’t stop saying “babe” and cavorting with his co-bros at chain restaurants (Arnett is fully exploiting every unlikable molecule in his body, which is a lot). Sure, it’s a comedy picture trope that we’ve seen a million times before, but there’s a genuine sweetness between Rod and Denise that highlights one of Hot Rod’s finest qualities: it’s steadfast commitment to being just sort of silly and good spirited at all times. At no point does Akiva Schaffer’s feature directorial debut take itself seriously, but he also loves these characters a whole hell of a lot, leading to (dare I say it) a natural balance of absolute absurdity and genuine warmth. You want to see Rod and Denise together by the time the credits roll, and for Jonathan’s sports car to explode in a ball of fire.
Schaffer’s got a keen eye for visuals and weird set pieces, having shot videos for the Lonely Island, and then digital shorts for SNL (such as Natalie Portman’s infamous rap segment). With Hot Rod, he’s not afraid to stop the film dead in its tracks to have Rod rage dance in the woods, or the whole town break out into an inspirational anthem (right before giving way to a savagely violent riot, of course). This formal looseness only adds to the unpredictability Rod’s faux mustached tale owns, as you’re never sure what the next scene is going to bring (wanna know who’d win in a fight between a grilled cheese sandwich and a taco? Hot Rod’s got you covered). English cinematographer Andrew Dunn (Gosford Park) lends everything a 2.35 polish, never letting Hot Rod feel small or visually cramped, like many other pictures of its ilk. By the time the young stuntman is summoning several animal spirits to help him fly over all those vehicles down below, you need to pause the movie because it borders on being way too much for one work to contain.
The Lonely Island have a knack for making movies that take a minute to find their appropriate audiences. Jorma Taccone’s MacGruber is another perfect example of an SNL movie being presented to the general public, and then slapped down without prejudice. Last year’s Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (which was co-directed by Taccone and Schaffer) also failed to make any sort of significant dent at the box office. But all three of these pictures are legitimate classics, and could’ve only come from this singular creative team. However, Hot Rod will still be the work they have yet to top – raucous, ludicrous, and relentless in its desire to make you fall out of your chair laughing. If there were any justice in this world, it wouldn’t just be considered a “modern cult hit”, but a legit household name, with a copy adorning every shelf and on every portable device, like a forced U2 download. I’d rather die than live in a world where Hot Rod can’t kick everybody’s ass.