Aug 3, 2017

Why "Hot Rod" Remains an Unadulterated Gem 10 Years Later

Scene from Hot Rod
Nowadays, the cult of Andy Samberg has been well established. He's had a TV series (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) that won Golden Globes. He's had movies (Popstar) that have been robbed of Oscars. He has become the artist that, if nothing else, will have a cult following for the rest of his career. Yet in 2007, early into his Saturday Night Live run, he teamed up with his Lonely Island team to produce their first cinematic outing: Hot Rod. It was a film that mixed nostalgia with absurdity and then new viral video techniques. To understand Hot Rod wasn't the point. There was no point to that "Yo Yo Ma at Your Library" gag. You just had to give into the wonderment that was Samberg, who tumbled down a hill and into audiences' hearts with a film that asked the tough questions like: would a grilled cheese sandwich or a taco win in a fight. Again, why? It's a great film about being an underdog, and one that is better if you don't take it too seriously.
It's a simple premise: what if someone made a movie adaptation around The Simpsons episode "Bart the Devil" but changed enough details not to get sued? In some respects, Samberg's Rod Kimble is that aspiring daredevil who wants to achieve awe-inspiring stunts, but keeps finding his shortcomings at the worst possible moment. The film thrives on slapstick humor of failure as Rod gets yelled at by his father Frank (prestigious actor Ian McShane), who insults him for not being a man. It's Rod's hopes to impress his father and win over his girlfriend Denise (Isla Fisher) from the dastardly narcissistic Jonathan (Will Arnett). In some ways, the tone of the film is essentially that of an 80's comedy, where the production feels just off enough to be neither true indie or big budgeted romp. However, it's also laced with details as contemporary as a remixed version of two characters saying "Cool beans" for what seems like two minutes.


So what appeal is there if the film is a comedy of failures? The Lonely Island team prides themselves on towing the line between confidence and insecurity. One can look at any of their great songs (such as then viral hit "Lazy Sunday") and find that even as they sing a boisterous production of cockiness, they are secretly really lame. The formula's subversion is what gives Hot Rod a pulse. This is Middle America, where the high production values don't exist. In its place is team spirit and corner cutting that is just as inspired. Suddenly Rod isn't a daredevil like Evel Knievel. He is the kid next door who wants to speed his bicycle over a car and land on the other side. It takes practice, and that is essentially what is seen here: lots and lots of crashes and burns, often set with hilarious concepts built into the bit, such as Rod saying words with a "Wh" sound. 
From there, the film is a parody of those underdog films, featuring a great supporting cast of future great character actors: Danny McBride, Bill Hader, and Jorma Taccone. They all seem to be just delusional enough to be funny without being pitiful. They're the local friends who root on Rod despite having limited knowledge of how to do stunts. They even perform dances to chintzy 80's pop, which even once leads to a riot. There's a deadpan nature to the entire thing as every character tries to act cooler than they are. In some ways, that's the heart of Hot Rod: trying to be greater than you are. In that way, it subverts itself twofold and ends up pushing the man who does nothing but make a fool of himself into a hero who overcomes adversity. Rod is a hero, if in just a small town kind of way.
The film didn't perform well at the box office during the time. In some ways, it set a precedent for what The Lonely Island trio of Samberg, Taccone, and Hot Rod director Akiva Schaffer would do together whenever they made a film. Taccone and Schaffer's directorial careers produced films that didn't impress at the box office (MacGruber and The Watch respectively), but formed cult audiences. Their ability to draw the line between delusional heroes and humor that transcends multiple decades of technique has yet to be fully appreciated, even in last year's Popstar. Still, their music career has made them one of the strongest parody artists since Weird Al, and it at least proves that somebody out there gets it. The only thing is that movies costs more than throwing on headphones and recording songs like "Natalie's Rap" or "Captain Jack Sparrow," so recouping losses are still a bit of a challenge.
Still, Hot Rod was the moment where Samberg put his stamp on comedy outside of Saturday Night Live. Even if he continued to do great work on the show, he established the type of humor that he would personally bring to the comedy realm. It was in some ways a more refined version of Adam Sandler - of which he worked with a few times in the years since. Even then, he managed to play dimwit nice guy better, and knew how to look great getting hurt. Hot Rod is a film that may not work to a larger audience, but it works in capturing the energy and excitement of a career being born from absurdity, nostalgia, and viral videos. To put it bluntly, few people could make a joke about McShane losing control of his bowels as the perfect and sentimental end to a movie. Samberg and crew found a way. 

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