Hidden Gems: Hot Rod
By Kyle Lee
June 20, 2018
Hot Rod may be the stupidest movie I've ever seen. If you watch it after reading this column, it's likely to be the stupidest movie you've ever seen too. But it is so gloriously, brilliantly stupid that I also think it's one of the great comedies ever made. Created by The Lonely Island trio of Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer (who also directs), they imbue the movie with the same absurdity and sincere idiocy they put into all of their Saturday Night Live Digital Shorts as well as their music and their later movie Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (which isn’t nearly as good as Hot Rod, but is worth watching). It's the kind of Steve Martin-esque "really smart people doing really dumb comedy" that I love. I've been a fan of these guys for a long time, getting hooked by a classic era Nintendo based video they did even before their SNL days, but Hot Rod is my favorite thing they've made.
Rod Kimble (Samberg) is a self-described stunt man in the Evel Knievel tradition. With a crew consisting of his half-brother Kevin (Taccone), ramp builder Rico (Danny McBride), and mechanic Dave (Bill Hader), Rod puts on stunts around his small town, stunts like jumping over the public pool on his moped. As always happens, into the mix comes "the girl", Denise (Isla Fisher), but she doesn't ruin the group dynamic or try to keep Rod from being the stunt man he wants to be, in fact she's just as weird as the others and loves being part of the crew. This may come from the script being written by a woman, South Park’s Pam Brady, initially as a Will Ferrell vehicle, but it was passed on and eventually picked up by The Lonely Island after their SNL Digital Shorts became so popular and they were allowed to make a movie.
At home, Rod has his angelic mother Marie (Sissy Spacek) and his step dad Frank (Ian McShane), who beats the crap out of Rod over and over again. Not in a child abuse way, no, Rod and Frank battle in hand to hand combat as a way of Frank taunting Rod and saying he’s not a real man. Rod is a full participant in this, as he wants nothing more than to prove to Frank that he’s a man. When Frank comes down with heart problems, Rod decides to put on a big stunt to raise money for Frank's surgery. Not because he loves Frank, but because Frank can't die until Rod punches him in the face and Frank admits that Rod is a man. This is all just hilariously and completely ludicrous and the fact that the Lonely Island guys got legendary and award winning actors like Spacek and McShane to play these rolls just makes it that much weirder and more fun. And they play everything totally straight. Spacek is really warm and inviting as a mom, it makes me wonder why we don't see more of her anymore. She’s wonderful. McShane has all the rocking machismo he didn't get out while in Deadwood, and he gets big laughs in his taunting and beating of Rod.
One of the best things is that the filmmakers don't make Rod into a true idiot. I mean that he's a sincere guy, and Samberg plays him with a goofy charm that is really winning. The movie likes Rod. When we laugh we're not laughing *at* Rod, necessarily. Well, sometimes we are, but never in a malicious way. This movie has a good heart is what I'm saying. And every character gets to be funny, even Denise (it's not often enough that the girl gets to be funny instead of just being a pretty face) and her asshole boyfriend Jonathan (Will Arnett). The way Arnett sells a scene where he just says “Babe” and “no” over and over again really gets me.
But the biggest laughs for me come from the crew. Danny McBride is his usual hilarious hyper aggressive loudmouth. Jorma Taccone is hysterical as Kevin, basically playing him as a real man-child. I'm not even sure how old he's supposed to be. Rod either. Both live at home and are definitely developmentally stunted. My favorite of the crew is Bill Hader's Dave, with his funny voice, his ancient Italian maxims, and of course a great scene where he's tripping on acid. There’s also small character parts like Richardson (Chester Tam) who wants to be part of the crew but is told by Dave that he can’t be because he doesn’t do anything. Hader is so brilliant in this scene too, just him sighing into a megaphone makes me laugh. Richardson’s response is hilarious in its laughable ridiculousness. It’s all part of the crazy tapestry of this movie.
Hot Rod has the same kind of gonzo absurdist almost occasional surrealism that Adam Sandler put into Billy Madison in his first movie. But Rod is a truly lovable leading man instead of the drunken angry idiot that Sandler plays in Billy Madison (which I also like, but less so as I get older). And that makes the movie more easily watchable and re-watchable. Sometimes you laugh from behaviors, sometimes from the jokes, and sometimes from the preposterousness of Rod falling for nearly a minute of runtime, or Rico recounting his violent dreams, the “I like to party” scene of Denise being introduced to the crew, or most famously the “Cool Beans” scene which when screened for test audiences ended up being listed as both the most disliked scene and second most liked scene.
You have to give yourself over to the absurd sometimes, and I can’t think of a better movie to do it with than Hot Rod. I could sit here and just recount some of my favorite moments, but really you just need to watch this movie. And since it was a big financial failure when it was released, I gather that not enough people have given themselves to its absurdity like they need to.