Death-Defying Case File #138: Hot Rod

Death-Defying Case File #138: Hot Rod

 

When Andy Samberg debuted on Saturday Night Live, he was the latest in a long line of handsome goofballs dating back to Chevy Chase. But he was also an emissary from a bold new comedy world. In this new paradigm, the superstars of tomorrow made their names and reputations by making silly homemade videos, then releasing them online rather than playing open-mic nights or doing Second City. 

There was something appealing about the homemade nature of the viral videos put out by Samberg’s Lonely Island crew. They updated the scrappy “Let’s put on a show!” spirit of Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney movies for the Internet age. Viral videos represented a new evolutionary step in the democratization of comedy. Suddenly, anyone with a funny idea, some friends, a video camera, and access to the Internet could get their work online for the entire world to ignore. 

Samberg quickly established himself as a smartass master of pastiche, a whiz at bite-sized musical mash-ups juxtaposing geek obsessions—like, say, the Narnia books—with the wired, sneering aggression of minimalist hip-hop. Samberg made an indelible impression on pop culture with “Lazy Sunday,” a brilliant video that incongruously brought that sneering hip-hop ’tude to milquetoast subject matter like Mapquest, The Notebook, buying cupcakes, the pride that comes with whipping out a $10 bill (“It’s all about the Hamiltons, baby!”), and catching the latest C.S Lewis adaptation on the big screen. 

Toss in a winking reference to pot, and bam: instant Internet sensation. Suddenly, everyone wanted that Andy Samberg feeling, and Saturday Night Live’s new breakout star had it in spades. And the hits kept coming. If Samberg’s life was a ’30s musical, “Lazy Sunday” would be followed by a giddy montage of newspapers and magazines adorned with his grinning mug, plus clips from his subsequent videos. The secret of Samberg’s success was that his songs worked both as vessels for jokes and as music. Samberg and cohorts Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer cared enough about the pop-cultural detritus they were spoofing—like the cheeseball R&B of Color Me Badd—to get the details right. On a personal level, I was excited to see a fellow Jew finally make it in the world of comedy. Though Jews are known primarily for their athletic prowess, Samberg proved the Chosen People could be chuckle-merchants as well. 

Like Albert Brooks, Robert Smigel, Tom Schiller, and my arch-nemesis Gary Weis (boo! hiss!) before him, Samberg landed his own private little fiefdom within the sprawling world of Saturday Night Live in the form of SNL Digital Shorts, the show’s long-overdue acknowledgment of the power and potency of Internet comedy. After SNL’s groundbreaking early years, Lorne Michaels proved a late adapter to cultural trends. (I hear that next year, the show will finally embrace this crazy “grunge music” coming out of Seattle.) So when Digital Shorts like “Natalie Raps” and “Dick In A Box” took off, NBC’s response was to pull the videos off YouTube.

The next stop for Samberg in his ruthless rise to superstardom was clearly the big screen. So Lorne Michaels dusted off an old script written for Will Ferrell by Pam Brady, the co-writer of South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut and Team America: World Police, and had the Lonely Island fellas rewrite it for Samberg. 

Throughout this decade, Ferrell’s magical name alone has been enough to get films green-lit. All a screenwriter had to do was begin a spiel with, “Will Ferrell is a kickball king…” “Will Ferrell walks down the street…” “Will Ferrell is a notary public…” or “Will Ferrell rapes a bunch of Hitler babies…” and their pitches would be cut short by studio executives angrily demanding to make the movie in question. 

So Michaels decided to launch his next big-screen superstar in a characteristically lazy, half-assed way. In Hot Rod, Samberg plays a definite Will Ferrell type—an easily enraged man-child—though that description could double as the big-screen persona of at least half a dozen Saturday Night Live alums. There are definitely times when Samberg seems to be channeling Ferrell, just as Seth Rogen seemed to intermittently channel Danny McBride in Observe And Report. 

Michaels half-assed it by giving Samberg Ferrell’s professional sloppy seconds, but he did help finagle a supporting cast that was impressive even at the time, and now appears to be the greatest aggregation of comic super-geniuses ever assembled for a single film. Danny McBride, Bill Hader, and Lonely Island’s Jorma Taccone play Samberg’s crew. The charming, delightful, mostly wasted Isla Fisher plays his love interest. And Chris Parnell, a scene-stealer among scene-stealers, walks away with the film as a man intent on bringing AM radio back by broadcasting a climactic Samberg stunt. For if 30 Rock has taught us anything—and it has taught us everything—it’s that technology is cyclical. 

Samberg stars as a hapless would-be Evel Knievel who lives at home and dreams of becoming a stuntman and winning the respect of his stepfather, Ian McShane, by beating the shit out of him in a fight. But mostly, Samberg hangs out with his buddies, planning and executing a series of spectacularly ill-thought-out stunts.

Then Samberg’s slacker paradise is rocked by the news that McShane is desperately ill and will die unless his family raises $50,000 for a life-saving operation. Samberg is devastated: How is he supposed to engage his step-dad in spirited fisticuffs if McShane is dead? “I’m gonna get you better. Then I’m going to beat you to death,” Samberg vows. So he decides to raise the money himself by executing the most awesome stunt of all time. 

Making this more of a challenge: McShane plays the kind of belligerent bully who’d rather die than let Samberg defeat him in any context. He seems to relish the idea of dying as a final fuck-you to his loser stepson. Like everyone else in the film, with the possible exceptions of Fisher and Sissy Spacek as Samberg’s mother, McShane is stuck somewhere in the pre-adolescent phase of development, where looking cool and sticking it to jerks and losers trump all other concerns. 

Hot Rod doesn’t take place in a suburb so much as in Suburbia, a fantasyland where no one has a job and everyone is free to hang out and goof around with their pals. Watching The Burbs recently, I was suddenly awash with nostalgia. Though I have no interest in living in the suburbs in real life, I would like very much to live in the ’80s suburbs of Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, and Robert Zemeckis. There’s something about the light and the set design of those films that inspires all manner of Proustian reveries about the single happy moment of my childhood: a home run I hit in Little League, though given the not-so-mad skillz of myself and my peers, it was more like a single followed by 13 errors, allowing me to prance home.

Hot Rod understands the primal emotional appeal of the cinematic suburbia of the ’80s. It takes place within a pop-culture time warp. Though there are scattered references to contemporary trends (in a sly nod to Samberg’s viral-video fame, a cheesy homemade video of his greatest hits and misses becomes an Internet sensation), the clothes and hairstyles seemingly emerged whole cloth from the ’70s, while the music comes largely from the ’80s. (Europe dominates the soundtrack.) So does this montage sequence, which illustrates the Sideshow Bob Rake Rule: watching Samberg tumble gracelessly down what appears to be a Mount Everest-sized hill is funny, then unfunny, then brutally unfunny, then pointless, then funny all over again. 


After “punch-dancing” out his rage, Samberg and his buddies embark on a series of silly stunts to raise money and the stakes for his climactic jump. Hot Rod is dumb comedy done smartly. When Hader tells the crew that he needs to leave a meeting to go to his job at the ice-skating rink, the group simply tags along after Hader while he goes about his skating-rink duties. In the same sequence, Samberg discovers that his crew has fallen under the sway of a big-talking homeless man while he wasn’t paying attention. Hot Rod is full of neat little details and throwaway gags, like a pan across Samberg’s room where the camera lingers over the posters and photos chronicling Samberg’s obsession with bikes and stunts, and ends with a one-second shot of an American Library Association ad of Yo-Yo Ma reading Goodnight Moon. 

Hot Rod is half “the scruffy underdogs in Lonely Island make a movie” and half “Lorne Michaels and Paramount grow the Andy Samberg brand.” Its weakest elements are the ones rooted in plot and character. Eventually, Samberg learns that his father didn’t die performing a mind-boggling stunt, as he had been led to believe, but rather in a pie-eating contest. When he suffers a crisis of faith, you can feel the grubby fingerprints of studio executives convinced that every film needs a redemptive arc and various other bullshit espoused by the Robert McKees of the world.

But when Hot Rod devotes itself to random foolishness, it’s pretty fucking hilarious. Having Taccone, Hader, and McBride dance in a convenience-store parking lot to “Two Of Hearts” is lazy, but also hilarious. There are flashes of McBride’s future Kenny Powers awesomeness when the actor beats up a random dude while yelling, “I’m fucking pumped! I’ve been drinking green tea all day!” and “I go to church every goddamned Sunday! You’re gonna bring the demons out of me!” 

The Lonely Island gang treats the film as the world’s biggest playset. After working miracles on a budget, they have the money and resources to realize spectacularly silly, elaborate ideas, like a sequence of Samberg and his buddies marching proudly down the street to an upbeat power ballad, picking up a small army of followers. Then the vibe suddenly takes a sharp downward turn and the supporters devolve into a riot. “It started off super-positive, then it just got kind of crazy,” Hader reflects. 

Samberg’s crusade climaxes with the big jump. It’s sponsored by Parnell, who delivers his lines in the soothing, paternal cadence of Dr. Spaceman. Parnell has a genius for delivering absurd thoughts and ideas as if they were the sanest sentiments in the world. In this instance, Parnell expresses his concern about color TV and FM radio killing his beloved AM by showing a freaked-out Samberg a tattoo of Calvin pissing on both a TV and an FM radio. He calmly explains, “I’ve got a tattoo here that fully illustrates my point. It’s of this rebellious young man, and he’s urinating on an FM radio. And then this other stream of urine is going onto that television set. Implausible, I know, but I like to think that he had sex the night before, and a little bit of residue is blocking his urethra, allowing the urine to flow in two separate directions.”

Hot Rod definitely held up the second time around. But in the public mind, it answered the question of Samberg’s viability as a movie star with a conclusive, “Oh, hell no!” In spite of Samberg’s Internet and SNL fame, it grossed a paltry $14 million, which is less than the advertising budget for the average studio film, or than Will Ferrell’s typical payday. It didn’t fare much better with critics; it scored a sub-par 43 on Metacritic. The cultural gatekeepers sadly were not willing to go to bat for a movie where a typical gag involves the hero having an out-of-body experience and watching a sentient grilled-cheese sandwich wrestling a taco that fights dirty.

Samberg thrived in a very weird, very new, very specific context: within absurdist two-minute musical videos riffing on the cheesiest depths of pop culture. So perhaps it’s no surprise that audiences didn’t embrace him as the star of a studio movie. In a viral world, movies can’t help but seem a little clunky, overlong, and old-fashioned. I sincerely hope Samberg gets another vehicle sometime soon. In Hot Rod, he proved he could carry a film, though he had an awful lot of help. In the meantime, he will continue making silly videos with his friends. That gig won’t pay $20 million a shot, but he’s really good at it. 

Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success

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