Film Review: Hot Rod (2007)

In 2004 Will Ferrell cemented himself as the premiere comedy star with Anchorman. With its barrage of gags, unapologetic stupidity and everything-but-the-kitchen-sink ethos, it was a definitive comedy film of the “aughts.” Nearly ten years later, the long-gestating sequel, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, was released. Overlong and forced, the film embodied that classic adage: You can’t go home again.

However, while Anchorman 2 failed to recreate the easy-going sense of lunatic daring that defined the original film, there was another movie that more successfully carried its improvisational fire. In 2007, which is when Anchorman 2 should have been made, Andy Samberg starred in Hot Rod. A mess in terms of storytelling and character development, the film initially seems to be another SNL knockoff, a sketch that someone erroneously believed would make a passable film. Due to its rapid-fire, whimsical nature, not to mention a cache of inspired performances, however, Hot Rod transcends its many structural failings, albeit barely.

Hot Rod centers on Samberg’s Rod Kimble, a tousle-haired manchild who dreams of becoming a stunt man. Although clearly in his mid to late-20s, Kimble still lives with his mother (an underused Sissy Spacek), his step-brother (a strangely listless Jorma Taccone) and his step-father Frank (played with great relish by Ian McShane). Defined by a profound set of daddy issues, Kimble’s life revolves around attempting to emulate his deceased daredevil father (who is said to have worked with Evel Knievel) and battling for his stepfather’s respect by engaging him in periodic fisticuffs.

A more mature film would have used this as a launching pad to subtly explore the corrosive effect of the absentee father. Hot Rod, by contrast, is far too enamored with non-sequiturs, cut-away jokes and general silliness to get too deep. Thankfully, this sort of wild irreverence is the film’s saving grace, transcending a story that makes little sense and is so stupid it threatens to implode viewers’ brains.

The plot details are also so utterly nonsensical that it is almost pointless to list them here. The main story starts when Frank begins to suffer from a heart condition, which spoils Rod’s mission to beat him fairly in a fight. This prompts the young idiot into action, sparking a mission to raise money for a surgery that could save Frank’s life. Joining him on this quest is his gaggle of friends, a motley crew of misfits played by notable faces who at the time were far less notable (including Samberg’s SNL contemporary Bill Hader and a young Danny McBride).

Most of this plays out how you might expect, especially if one is familiar with the broad comedies released in the past couple of decades. There is the basic three act structure in place. This includes the usual third act nadir and a budding romance between Rod and Denise (Isla Fisher) that must go through its own set of ups and downs.

There is however no real legitimate sense of conflict or stakes. The only real antagonist would arguably be Frank; although, Will Arnett does cameo as Denise’s boorish boyfriend. Rod’s relationship to him is also incredibly bizarre and unrelatable. Thus, when Rod’s master plan of raising funds for Frank to receive a lifesaving surgery comes to fruition, it’s difficult to get and stay involved emotionally.

The actors make the most of what they are given but are inconsistently leveraged. Having an iconic actor of Sissy Spacek’s caliber in a broad, silly comedy seems like a potential goldmine, but she is mainly shoved to the sidelines throughout Hot Rod, only having one good deadpan quip near the very end of the film. Hader and McBride offer effective support, yet they often come off as more weird than funny. Fisher is positioned as the stock comedic girlfriend type and is unfortunately given the least to do. She appears in a number of standout scenes (such as the Arnett “BABE” scene posted above) but primarily as the straight man foil to other actors.

The film largely rests on the shoulders of Samberg, with McShane also providing a strong showing. In their scenes together, McShane undercuts his curated on-screen persona as a crusty figure of patriarchal power. He fights valiantly against an underwritten role, and while his actions towards Samberg’s Rod are verbally and physically abusive, you never get a sense that he hates the kid. In fact, you feel that he is invested in him and wants to see him become a better man.

Despite this, Hot Rod is still Samberg’s film. While his character never really makes sense and is not rooted in any sort of coherent satirical structure (as Ferrell’s Ron Burgandy was), he still functions as an endearing comedic hero.

This is due both to Samberg’s performance (which he has now described as “bad, but you know its bad”) and the material the film’s script provides him. While formulaic in its overall structure, Hot Rod is filled with great little vignettes. One of these is a moment where Rod screams that he needs to go to his “quiet place” and then proceeds to drive to a forest and have an impromptu dance scene.

Hot Rod is filled with this type of unpredictability, which it enhances through its bizarre, 80s-rooted soundtrack. These scenes make watching the film a weird, paradoxical yet overall engaging experience. You know where everything is eventually going to go,  but you also have no idea what’s going to happen next.

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