Call it the Napoleon Dynamite effect. Jared Hess's indie hit has created a niche for comedic geek chic, and it's clearly the principal influence on recent release Eagle vs Shark and this week's Hot Rod. The former is a New Zealand film, but it was developed at the Sundance Institute, and its story of two misfits hooking up is aimed squarely at awkward adolescents with their fingers on their joy sticks.
It's not entirely clear how old 'Hot' Rod Kimble is supposed to be. He still lives at home with his mom (Sissy Spacek) and tough-as-nails father-in-law (Ian McShane), and he's obviously sexually inexperienced, but he's got a crush on neighbour Denise (Isla Fisher from Wedding Crashers) and the actor who plays him - Andy Samberg - recently turned 29.
Rod sees himself following in the treadmarks of his natural father, a stunt man who worked for Evel Knievel. He certainly has the guts - along with the physique of a beanpole, a stick on moustache, and the thrust of a 50cc moped between his legs.
In the opening scene he attempts to jump a camper van. 'Did you reinforce the supports?' he asks his 'crew' (Jorma Taccone, Bill Hader, Danny McBride). 'Nah, we didn't have time,' comes the reply. He attempts the stunt anyway, and - ouch! - lands smack in the side of the RV.
There's much more of this kamikaze daredevilry spread across the next hour and a half. Rod makes a splash trying to jump a swimming pool. Rod is run over by a van. Rod sets fire to himself… Kids, don't try this at home!
There's a cruel aspect to this Jackass type slapstick that's mitigated by the fact that - inexplicably - Rod is never seriously injured. (In that opening scene he does throw up, which frankly we might have done without.)
More perplexing is the emotional cruelty involving Rod's relationship with his father-in-law, Frank. Rather like Inspector Clouseau and Cato in The Pink Panther films, their relationship consists of brutal hand-to-hand combat, no quarter given. This, apparently, is how Rod must win his respect. Even when Frank falls seriously ill and Rod dedicates himself to raising the money for a heart transplant, they still express their feelings in terms of loathing and contempt. Given that the screenplay is by a woman (Pam Brady) perhaps this is a jibe about machismo, but first time director Akiva Schaeffer seems uncertain of the emotional undercurrent, and these scenes are more awkward than funny.
Of course this would be a very different film if the actor playing Rod had been, say, fourteen. The forthcoming British film Son of Rambow has another fatherless child reenacting movie action stunts, and though we laugh at his naiveté, we also find ourselves swept up by his imaginative resource and emotional vulnerability. Hot Rod is a much cruder film, and even though he plays it pretty straight, Samberg's presence can't help but give everything an ironic Wayne's World gloss.
A relatively recent addition to the long-running Saturday Night Live sketch show, Samberg got his big break on the back of comic shorts he made with his childhood friend Schaeffer and co-star Taccone, and posted on the internet. Hot Rod has a similar home video vibe, and not only because Rod's younger brother is also his official 'videographer'.
If you extracted the movie's best gags it would make for 15-20 solid minutes of youtube fare. That's not such a terrible ratio these days, but there's a lot of filler and repetition to bring it up to feature length, including a tediously clichéd romantic subplot featuring Isla Fisher and the professionally repellent Will Arnett. Samberg has potential, but he's going to need a bigger push and a more dynamic vehicle to make it as a movie star.
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