It worked for Will Ferrell in “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights”: Devise a cocktail-napkin sketch of a character and hope the movie falls in place around it. But by the time “Hot Rod” reached the screen, Ferrell had stepped aside, leaving “Saturday Night Live’s” Andy Samberg to play amateur stuntman and accident magnet Rod Kimble. Those hoping for feature-length doses of Samberg’s “Lazy Sunday” wit will have to settle for just plain lazy, as “Hot Rod” aims low and still manages to miss its target. Even if pic crashes and burns at the box office, it should emerge unscathed on DVD.
In one of “Napoleon Dynamite’s” more memorable gags, Jon Heder set up a sweet bicycle jump, only to nosedive on liftoff. “Hot Rod” repeats the same joke ad nauseum as Samberg’s unflappable Rod Kimble barrels headfirst into one daredevil stunt after another, eating pavement every time. Nothing seems to break his spirits — except for the obligatory second-act self doubts, which are solved hastily enough for Rod to make good on his plan to jump 15 school buses in a single bound.
With precious little in the way of plot, “Hot Rod” relies on a combination of Samberg’s winning screen presence and the sheer stupidity of its premise: Rod needs to raise $50,000 to pay for his stepfather’s heart transplant, and the only way to save the miserable old guy’s life is by defying death itself.
Although Samberg hasn’t quite developed a style of his own, the up-and-coming comic boasts something unusual for an “SNL” regular: sex appeal. Between his sideways grin and hipster appeal, it’s easy to see why Paramount would want to sign the actor before he hit it big, even if the best script they had to offer was this half-baked suburban stuntman comedy.
Samberg makes the move to features with cohorts Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone; trio got their start as Web-based comedy troupe the Lonely Island. Schaffer directs, while Taccone co-stars as Rod’s half-brother Kevin. They’re funny guys, but longform is a stretch. “Hot Rod” is most amusing when it veers into pure absurdity — don’t be surprised to see a sequence like the movie’s “Cool Beans” rap find a viral afterlife on YouTube.
Kevin’s “Stuntman Forever” short, an outtakes reel featured as a movie-within-the-movie, has already made its way online. But scripted wipeouts aren’t nearly as satisfying as the real thing, which explains why “Hot Rod” feels old-fashioned next to the outrageous, unpredictable spontaneity of “Borat” or “Jackass.”
If anyone could warn Rod his stunts won’t go as planned (“They’re all going to laugh at you!”), it would be Sissy Spacek, who plays Rod’s mom, in little more than a paycheck part. Isla Fisher is equally underused as Rod’s love interest, stuck playing the straight girl to boorish boyfriend Will Arnett — a shame, considering the obvious comic talent she showed in “Wedding Crashers.”
“Deadwood’s” Ian McShane fares better as Rod’s abusive stepfather, and the entire movie builds not to the bus-jumping gimmick (shown in closeups and reaction shots, not an actual leap), but rather a final knock-down, drag-out fight between Samberg and McShane (which actually features the movie’s best stuntwork). Stunt junkies will also appreciate a “punch dancing” sequence in the woods, a clever riff on training montages featured in countless sports movies, which ends with Rod taking an extremely bumpy tumble down a very long hill.
“Hot Rod” exists in the moment, offering plenty of laughs in passing while paying minimal attention to character. It is yet another example of a comedy that refuses to be taken seriously — concept as clothesline for all manner of silliness.
End credits and final soundtrack were missing from the print screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival, in advance of Par’s Aug. 3 rollout.