Monday, August 13, 2007

Review: Hot Rod

Starring: Andy Samberg, Isla Fisher, Jorma Taccone, Bill Hader, Danny R. McBride, Sissy Spacek, Ian McShane
Director: Akiva Shaffer
Producer: John Goldwyn, Lorne Michaels
Release Date: August 3, 2007
Running time: 88 min
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Distributors: Paramount Pictures

“I used to be legit. I was too legit. I was too legit to quit. But now I'm not legit. I'm unlegit. And for that, I must quit.”

The Skinny:
A (very) amateur stuntman attempts a stunt where he jumps 15 buses on his moped. He hopes to raise enough money to get his step-father a heart transplant, so he can be health enough again to “uncork the ass-beating of a lifetime” on him and finally gain his respect.

The Review:
Saturday Night Live is a machine. Like any machine that has been running for 32 years, it doesn’t always work, and the quality can be inconsistent, but for better or worse, it has become quite the institution. I stopped watching ages ago, but they sure keep grinding it out don’t they? We’ve seen sketches turned into feature-length movies; from the good (Blues Brothers, Wayne’s World), to the bad (Night at the Roxbury, Superstar) to the utterly atrocious (It’s Pat, Ladies Man). In the infancy of their careers, we’ve had the pleasure of seeing some real talent come from the halls of 30 Rock, and on to more fruitful ventures. On the other side of that coin, we’ve also seen some of the most inexplicable displays of ‘talent’ attempt to cash in on their resume and fail miserably. So when movies like this come along, I typically take them with a grain of salt. In this case, I think my tepid expectation may have actually added to my enjoyment of the movie.

The premise sounds like yet another SNL sketch forced to feature length. The movie opens with Rod Kimble (Andy Samberg), an amateur stuntman who believes his real father to have been a famous stuntman who worked with Evil Knievel, and his crew spending their days setting up a series of jumps for Rod to attempt on his moped. His crew consists of Dave (Bill Hader), the mechanic, Rico (Danny R. McBride), the ramp builder, and Kevin (Jorma Taccone), the step-brother and videographer. In the beginning, Rod attempts to jump a mail truck positioned between two makeshift wooden ramps. Before he starts, he asks his crew if they had time to reinforce the ramp. They respond, obviously, that no, they didn’t have time. He tries it anyway and flies smack into the top of the truck and the landing ramp. Undeterred by this failure, he promotes a stunt the very next day where he plans to jump the local pool. This also fails. Spectacularly.

On the home front, Rod arrives home daily to suit up for a series of gladiator-type battles with his step-father Frank (Ian McShane) in an attempt to win his respect. His step-brother Kevin tries to stop him but Rod says, “You’re his real son, so he automatically loves you. I have to earn it.” So off he goes to get his ass handed to him again. After the failed pool jump, Rod returns home to learn that Frank is in need of a heart transplant that will cost $50,000 out of pocket. This angers Rod. Not so much because of the severity of the situation, but that he will never get the chance to beat Frank in hand-to-hand combat. After going to his “happy place” (a very hilarious scene with Rod in the forest apparently training and “air punching out his aggression”) he decides that he will set up a stunt wherein he will attempt to jump 15 buses and promote the event with all the proceeds going to pay for Frank’s operation. So he can keep him alive, bring him back to full strength, and try his hand at, well, beating him to death.

Let me go on record as saying with the right projects, Andy Samberg has the potential to have a long and prosperous film career. In lesser hands, this movie could have been a disaster, but what makes it work is the honesty of Rod’s character. Rod is a man happy with simple pleasures, but he is not stupid. Samberg wisely chose not to play it up for cheesiness or cheap laughs. Yes, there are cheesy moments and cheap laughs abound, but there is sincerity in the character that makes it work. The supporting cast is also played to just the right tone as well. There isn’t a Stifler-type character that is trying to break out and be noticed. Everyone just does their part, and does it well while staying mindful of the structure of the film. My favorite parts of the movie are between Rod and Frank. Whether they are fighting or Rod is trying to talk to him to get a glimpse of the respect he almost painfully desires, it always turns into Rod finding various ways to threaten Frank’s life. Even as he lies on his death bed. Another wise move by the filmmakers was not to overdo the emotion and weigh down the picture with sappy sentiment. Again, it plays to just the right tone. And the 80’s-style soundtrack that fills the movie is just icing on the cake.

The Rub:
This movie is much funnier than I expected. A fairly textbook comedy that works because it cares about the characters. It is cheesy but sincere, over-the-top, but not overplayed, and a great vehicle to, what hopes to be, a promising career from star Andy Samberg. And there’s the rub.

*** out of ****

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