American comedy is single-handedly defined by the strength of the lead actor.
It doesn’t matter much about the plot or the jokes, because everything has become a cult of personality. If you go to see a Steve Carell movie, for example, you can expect to enjoy lots of straight-faced nonsense. There is no actor better at holding a stony exterior than Carell, and his line-readings barely ever relate to the relative funniness of the lines themselves. He makes the exposition lines funny, and he can on occasion botch the punch lines in the process. But that’s how he is; his personality is what audiences go in for. The same is true, perhaps more than with any other comedic actor, for Will Ferrell. He has a very specific character he plays in his movies, dictated by the way he reads his lines, and this is perhaps the reason why Hot Rod feels as unfinished as it does. Originally a vehicle for Ferrell to be crazy in, the project instead passed on to The Lonely Island – a trio of web-comedians who had recently made it on the American comedy-factory also known as Saturday Night Live. Akiva Schaffer, Andy Samburg and Jorma Taccone make up the three, and they first made videos online before Andy was picked up to be one of the main castmembers on SNL, a show which has previously featured people like Bill Murray, Chris Rock, Tina Fey and Will Ferrell. The other two came along as writers, and together they created the “digital shorts” section, a series of viral videos which were the best thing to happen to the sketch show in a long time.
Samburg also managed to pick up the traditional throng of female admirers, due to his being on TV, and it was with these that the Lonely Island group managed to lock themselves into this movie. The central conceit is simple enough: a young man who wants to be a stunt motorcyclist decides to take on the biggest jump of his life in order to raise money for his dying father (played by the grizzled Ian McShane). In taking the reins of the film, they decided to add their own touches to the script, to reinvent many of the scenes to be more in tune with their sense of humour. The result is an odd film which doesn’t know what it wants to be, but with a series of superb comic moments. For every scene which falls apart, there is a moment of surreal, throwaway brilliance. For a film which was meant to be ruled over by Will Ferrell, the trio manage to work quite a lot of decent jokes into the mix. On top of this, most of the jokes happen to be purely visual.
As Samburg’s character Rod wants to be a stuntman, obviously the film has to show several of his failed attempts. However the expected results don’t occur at any point. If this had been a Ferrell film, the scenes of Rod crashing repeatedly would have been grandly over the top, and followed by drawn-out moments of anguish from Ferrell (who does unstoppable crying better than anyone). With Schaffer as director, we instead get these scenes played out with stark realism. When Rod attempts to jump his bike over a swimming pool, we don’t see any big crash. Instead he goes up into the air, and then straight back down. It’s naturalistic, and it feels just like a viral video. The whole film does, and this gives it a great disjointed feeling. If each and every one of the scenes were taken away and uploaded separately onto Youtube, they’d be great. Together they are unnervingly bizarre. And self-conscious.
Every line in the film sees to exist as if the characters are aware that they are in a cheaply-budgeted film. When a love interest is introduced, in the form of endless perky and adorable Isla Fisher, the movie handles her with callous disregard for personality. That she has an obnoxious boyfriend (Will Arnett!) is taken for granted, and played around with as much as possible. “I’m going to grab a vitamin water. Shall I make that dos?” he leers at her, at one point. It is definitely unlikely that she would pick the obnoxious Arnett – whose every word is delightfully obnoxious, even to her – over the puppydog nonsense of Samburg, and the film realises this. Thus, the characters mope around to overdone 80’s powerpop. When we have a scene such as the one where Rod and… Isla Fisher pretend to fight each other for fun, we know that she will hit him too hard and he’ll be overly upset. The film hangs upon this for its own amusement, which satisfies the meta-humourist but will irritate the majority of the audience. There is a whole new level of humour buried under the surface – humour which is barely funny at all, unless you have a silly mind. Being drunk would definitely enhance the movie.
These jokes are rough, and so subtle as to not exist. It takes a mind of steel to dare laugh at these awful jokes. There is a trend with comedians who make a move to the big screen from somewhere else, in that they have far-out sense of humour. They don’t care if you get the joke, because they get the joke and thus everything is okay – Hot Rod is a firm example of this kind of comedy movie. It was probably far more fun to write and make up than it was to perform. Amongst the silly slight-jokes like Rod and his brother repeating the phrase ‘cool beans’ to each other over and over for a full minute or so, or a montage of friend-to-the-troupe Chester Tam throwing paper in the air before thrusting his crotch at the camera; there are some proper ideas hurtling around aimlessly. The reason why Rod wants his dad to get the surgery that will save his life is because dad will not accept him until Rod beats the guy in combat. It’s unfair to beat an ill man, so Rod needs to have his dad cured so the fight will be fair and square. Thusly, the poignant moments of father-son bonding often end with Rod shouting “you won’t be so happy with your surgery once I murder you!” It is a mad piece of film.
The cast are incredibly uneven. Bill Hader appears as one of Rod’s friends, but doesn’t get anything to do – and nor does he make much of his role. Isla Fisher and Will Arnett, also, are not as interesting as they have been in the past. They’re both brilliant at comic timing and can make something of almost any line, but feel like their performances are being toned down by outside influences. Certainly, the two actors of The Lonely Island trio (Jorma playing Rod’s younger brother) are probably the two who stand out the most of all. Samburg has the most to do in his role as Rod, and given that this is his first leading performance in a movie he manages to just about hold up under the strain. His character is amorphous to fit into whichever joke they want him to take part in – flipping from clueless berk to remotely sensible human being depending on which other character he’s taking to – and Samburg handles this well, almost making Rod feel like an actual character. Jorma Taccone is better, though, as Rod’s geeky brother, and it’s almost a shame the two roles weren’t switched around, as Taccone seems to have a much stronger presence onscreen than Samburg. Really, though, the only good performance comes from ever-reliable Chris Parnell, playing an overenthusiastic DJ who provides the commentary for Rod as he undergoes his final moment-of-truth jump.
The best thing about the movie turns out to be Schaffer’s direction, which creates a much-needed tone for the film, and is reminiscent of Napoleon Dynamite at times due to the ruthless editing. Each joke is played out perfectly, and the only shame is that the jokes aren’t strong enough to deserve this. There are only a few moments where the script shines enough to show the direction the film could’ve taken, and many of them come towards the end. The best scene of the film, where Rod and his team march to the site of his big jump, is executed wonderfully.
That the film was made at all was a hugely impressive leap for The Lonely Island team, but the result is too nonsensical to work. Disassembled into different scenes, you can see bits and pieces which are ingenious, but overall there is no coherence to anything, and the script gives a number of very talented actors nothing to work with. Perhaps the biggest flaw of the movie is that it does not have a single personality running the show here, but at the same time this manages to work in favour of Hot Rod. By far and away it is the sum of its parts, but it’s consistently entertaining, and will almost certainly pick up a huge cult following as time goes on. And it’ll deserve it.