I don’t think “Hot Rod” is going to make any money — not in the era of “Knocked Up” and “Superbad” (which opens Aug. 17), to name two comedies that are slightly better and a great deal raunchier. Which is too bad, because while “Hot Rod” can’t match those films’ dizzying heights of profane hilarity, it is a marvel of odd, surreal humor in its own right. I often found myself laughing, and then laughing at the fact that I was laughing, considering that what I was laughing at shouldn’t have been that funny.
There shouldn’t be any humor in two teenagers repeating the phrase “cool beans” back and forth to each other, changing the pitch and inflection dozens of times over the course of 90 seconds until it becomes something of a song. Nor is there any reason for an exchange like this:
“What’s that song about the grandma getting run over by a reindeer?”
“Um, ‘Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer’?”
And I fail to see any purpose in a young man asking a young lady who she thinks would win in a fight, a taco or a grilled cheese sandwich.
What?! A taco and a grilled cheese sandwich can’t fight! They’re FOOD, not people! You kids today, with your absurd “comedy”!
(For the record, the girl’s response is: “I’d say the grilled cheese, but only in a fair fight. If it’s prison rules, I’d take the taco.” To which the boy replies, “That’s pretty racist, but OK.”)
No, there’s no sense or reason to be found in “Hot Rod,” which makes it all the more delightful that I laughed and laughed throughout it. It’s the work of “Saturday Night Live’s” Andy Samberg and his partners Akiva Schaffer (the director) and Jorma Taccone (the co-star), collectively known as Lonely Island. This is the trio behind some of “SNL’s” best digital shorts of the last few years, and their sublimely ridiculous film comes from the postmodern, Will Ferrell-inspired, keep-repeating-the-joke-until-it-becomes-funny school of thought.
The thinking goes like this: A guy running through the forest and falling down a hill isn’t particularly funny. But when he continues to fall down the hill in a sequence of shots that seems to go on forever, it becomes funny.
Samberg plays Rod Kimble, a doofy teenager who fancies himself the next Evel Knievel. With his rickety motorized bicycle, he attempts outlandish stunts that have no chance of success, and indeed, his failure rate is fast approaching 100 percent. Yet this does not deter him. Like all the delusional teens of moviedom (he’s more socially well-adjusted than Napoleon Dynamite, but no more self-aware), he believes he can do these things simply because, well, if he somehow WERE able to do them, that would be awesome. And the hope of awesomeness is what motivates us all.
He has a love/hate relationship with his stepfather, Frank (Ian McShane), constantly trying to beat him in a fight and constantly losing. When Frank suffers heart failure and needs a transplant that will cost $50,000, Rod vows to raise the money, save Frank’s life, earn his respect … and then finally beat him up once and for all.
Aided by a couple of loser friends (Bill Hader, Danny R. McBride) and by his worshipful stepbrother Kevin (Jorma Taccone), Rod plans a massive stunt to raise the money. In the meantime, he does smaller jobs to gain publicity and earn start-up capital — and also to impress the girl next door, Denise (Isla Fisher), who’s dating a jerk named Jonathan (played by master-of-jerkiness Will Arnett).
The screenplay was originally written by Pam Brady (the “South Park” movie, “Team America: World Police,” TV’s “The Loop”) as a vehicle for Will Ferrell. The Lonely Island boys have obviously tailored it to suit their purposes; whether the Ferrell-esque oddness (I was reminded of “Anchorman” more than once) is left over from Brady’s work, or whether it’s the guys’ own contribution, I don’t know.
What’s important is that it works, mostly. Some bits of randomness are more inspired than others; some fall flat altogether. The film certainly goes on longer than it should: The plot seems to be on the verge of wrapping up at about the 65-minute mark, and then there’s still 20 minutes left on the clock.
But then there’s the fact that it is often really, really funny. So much of the humor is odd and baffling that I suspect many viewers simply won’t know what to make of it. You’re either going to wet your pants laughing, or you’re going to scratch your head and wonder if you’re getting too old. I’m in the wet-pants camp, but hey, what else is new?
B (1 hr., 28 min.; )