Friday, June 24, 2016

Hot Rod

HOT ROD (Akiva Schaffer, 2007)

In the comedy HOT ROD, Rod Kimble (Andy Samberg) aspires to be a stuntman like his deceased father, an assistant for Evel Knievel who died trying to get out of his boss’ shadow. Rod is using a moped to attempt jumps, so it may not take long for him to follow in his father’s footsteps in dying a horrible death. Rod also desperately wants to earn the respect of his stepfather Frank (Ian McShane), a tough old coot who withholds his love until Rod can beat him in a fight. When Rod is told Frank is in need of a heart transplant that insurance won’t cover, he decides to stage a 15-bus jump to raise money to save Frank’s life so he can beat him to a pulp.

Supporting Rod in his pursuit of stunt glory and charitable fundraising are his younger half-brother Kevin (Jorma Taccone), who is also team manager and videographer, and his friends Dave (Bill Hader) and Rico (Danny McBride), who builds ramps and oversees the explosives used for showmanship. Rod also invites his next-door neighbor and crush Denise (Isla Fisher) to join the crew. She has a soft spot for Rod and helps with his training regimen, but to his chagrin, she’s dating Jonathan (Will Arnett), whose loathsomeness she somehow hasn’t noticed.

Like WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER, HOT ROD successfully spoofs a film niche without requiring knowledge of what it’s sending up. In this instance the target is 1980s inspirational sports dramas about working class teenagers. As part of the meta humor about older actors playing high schoolers, like a 23-year-old Ralph Macchio in THE KARATE KID, Rod acts like a petulant adolescent but appears to be in his early twenties, although the character’s age is never clarified. The soundtrack swells to the bombastic music of Swedish hard rock band Europe, which establishes the period the film is trying to evoke even though it is seemingly set in the present day. Arnett hilariously plays every jerk boyfriend in teen movies standing in the way of the sensitive hero and the girl of his dreams.

The jokes favor the absurd over the referential. Rod’s punch-dancing scene in the forest calls back to Kevin Bacon doing something similar in FOOTLOOSE, but the weirdness of the comedy is paramount. That sequence concludes with Rod’s lengthy tumble down a hill. Director Akiva Schaffer extends the fall well past the usual point so that it becomes funnier as it seems like it may go on forever. The same strategy is at work with Samberg and Taccone’s surreal repetition of “cool beans” being transformed into a proto rap song. The exclamation points to scenes often break traditional rules of humor, and the punchy editing rhythm keeps the film moving without making it seem like a series of sketches.

HOT ROD was initially intended to be a Will Ferrell film. While the screenplay is attributed to Pam Brady from that version of the project, the uncredited rewriting by Samberg, Taccone, and Schaffer adapts the script to The Lonely Island’s sensibility. There’s no denying that much of what gets laughs in HOT ROD is dumb, but the creativity and rambunctious spirit build a lot of momentum. This very funny film is remarkably consistent because of the strange chances it takes.

Grade: A-

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