Throughout Saturday Night Live’s existence, especially during the lean years, there’s been an ongoing question of whether the format serves the tremendously gifted people who cycle in and out of the cast. In the tortured process of winnowing down sketches and performing them live, something often gets lost; even good concepts can seem worked-over and airless, and the ones that hit are driven into the ground. In the decade after Wayne’s World took off, Lorne Michaels’ attempts to capitalize on popular characters led to some of the decade’s worst comedies: Coneheads, A Night At The Roxbury, Superstar, The Ladies Man. (Michaels was not involved with It’s Pat: The Movie, but it had that same unmistakable spirit of desperation.) It’s not just that these characters couldn’t get laughs for more than five minutes at a time; they were also hamstrung by conventional plots and lifeless filmmaking. Who cares if the Butabi brothers own their own dance club? Or if Leon Phelps will put away that bottle of Courvoisier and settle down with his true love?
With “Lazy Sunday” and the digital shorts that followed, comedy troupe The Lonely Island—Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone—circumvented SNL’s process, brought some flexibility into an ancient format, and ushered the show kicking and screaming into the viral age. And though few at the time were hailing Hot Rod for its innovation—like the other Michaels productions, it received mostly tepid or worse reviews and flopped— the film works hard to wriggle out of tired old formulas. Or if it must adhere to formula, at least the Lonely Islanders are going to make the audience aware of it and clown around as much as possible. That’s the difference between Hot Rod and MacGruber (directed by Taccone, incidentally) and the Michaels productions of old: They may be just as poorly received, but their rhythms are unpredictable and exciting, shocked to life by moments of anti-comedy and wacky deconstruction. Hardcore comedy devotees pick up on them like a dog whistle.
Consider the oddest scene from Hot Rod. Aspiring stuntman Rod Kimble (Samberg) pays a visit his half-brother Kevin (Taccone) to mend fences after Kevin’s movie, intended to promote Rod’s awesome achievements, premières to mass ridicule. Rod apologizes for his public outburst; Kevin expresses sympathy for a devastating revelation about Rod’s father. “Cool beans?,” Kevin asks. “Cool beans,” Rod confirms. In A Night At The Roxbury, this is where the scene would end: Obligatory reconciliation, done as quickly and painlessly as possible. In Hot Rod, it keeps going, first with the phrase ping-ponging back and forth between Samberg and Taccone, and then with a full-on rap breakdown with piped-in beats and stuttering frames. Now, this boring apology scene has ticked out the half-brother reconciliation box while transforming into a left-field comic setpiece. It’s just one of many moments when this restless, inspired, and only occasionally slapdash comedy refuses to play by the rules.
Owing much to the hand-stitched suburban spaciness of Napoleon Dynamite—though more joke-filled and not nearly as mannered—Hot Rod introduces Rod as an affably dim Evel Knievel wannabe who’s inspired by a photograph of his biological father working for the daredevil legend. Between his homemade yellow cape, glued-on fake moustache, and low-powered Hyundai moped, Rod cuts a figure of adorably accessorized failure, awed more for his Jackass dumb enthusiasm in the face of danger than his ability to jump over anything without winding up in the hospital. (Much of Hot Rod is devoted to failed stunts, though to my mind, Rod crashing violently into things isn’t nearly as funny as his bike gently curling into the water at a public pool.) Nobody in his posse (Taccone, Bill Hader, Danny McBride) seems to acknowledge his failures—his half-brother’s movie gets ridiculed, but he means it sincerely as a tribute—and its newest member, a college-educated girl-next-door played by Isla Fisher, seems content not to say anything.
Now here’s where the hacky plot kicks in: Rod’s combative stepfather (Deadwood’s Ian McShane, an inspired bit of casting) needs $50,000 for a heart transplant or he’ll die. And so to raise the $50,000, he and the crew arrange a 15-schoolbus jump and secure sponsorship from a local AM station (headed by a great Chris Parnell) that gets exclusive, non-visual broadcast rights to the event. Working from (and reworking) a script by South Park writer Pam Brady, Samberg and company attempt to toughen up the formulaic premise by having Rod want to save his stepdad so he can beat him up and earn his respect. This dark embellishment helps a little, but it can’t fully disguise the contrived underpinnings of a story that wouldn’t be out of place in a ’90s Lorne Michaels production. Add to that the point-and-shoot indifference of Schaffer’s directorial style and Hot Rod starts to look awfully plain.
But damned if the Lonely Islanders don’t mine for offbeat laughs wherever they can find them. Sometimes they favor silliness for its own sake, like Rod mispronouncing the safe word “whisky” as if the “w” and the “h” have been reversed or giving no context to McBride giving out high-five after high-five and declaring “… and that is how it’s done.” Sometimes they shoot for the mildly surreal, like speculating what it might look like if a taco and a grilled-cheese sandwich got in a fight. Then there’s a random musical interlude like Rod’s posse flailing around to Stacey Q’s 1986 one-hit-wonder “Two Of Hearts” in a parking lot, or a one-liner with a so-bad-it’s-good quality that makes it feel like a comment on one-liners. (“It’s bounced around the web like a beach ball at a Nickelback concert.”) My favorite gags play on repetition, the theory that extending a joke well past the point of exhaustion will make it funny again. (See also: Sideshow Bob stepping on rakes on The Simpsons or the urination scene in Austin Powers.) There’s an early forest training-montage scene that ends with Rod falling and falling (and falling and falling) down a mountain, but just as good is Will Arnett, as Fisher’s smarmy boyfriend, calling after her when she leaves in a huff. By my count, he uses the word “babe” 20 times.
Not everything in Hot Rod works—sometimes the conventional elements go untweaked and the pacing sputters like the exhaust pipe on Rod’s moped—but it doesn’t behave like the lackluster Will Ferrell castoff its box-office failure would suggest. It has more in common with Wet Hot American Summer or Pootie Tang than a dollar-store Talladega Nights, more a conceptual comedy with Hollywood plot points than a Hollywood comedy with odd digressions. Though The Lonely Island enjoyed far more success in pressing the boundaries of what’s possible at SNL—or, to be fair, remembering what Albert Brooks contributed to the first season—Hot Rod finds them playing around with form and scribbling infectiously outside the lines. Cool beans.
September 6: 12 Monkeys
September 27: Bound
October 18: The People Under The Stairs