“Life is short — stunt it!”
That’s the motto of Rod Kimble (Andy Samberg), a would-be stuntman who aspires to be the next Evel Knievel. The fact that “Hot Rod’s” title runs over a freeze-frame of Rod jumping his moped off a short curb should tell you how good he is at the stunt game. Nonetheless, when Rod’s stepfather Frank (“Deadwood’s” Ian McShane) needs a heart transplant, Rod decides to raise the money by jumping 15 school buses, thereby breaking Knievel’s record. (Rod also wants Frank to recover in the hopes that he may one day best the old man in hand-to-hand combat and thus win his respect.)
If the thought of seeing a comedy featuring a current star of “Saturday Night Live” gives you pause, swallow your fear — “Hot Rod” emerges as a daffy, dorky summer surprise, a silly comedy of non sequiturs that feels like a cockeyed collaboration between Will Ferrell and Mel Brooks. In one sequence, Rod perfectly reenacts Kevin Bacon’s “punch-dancing” scene from “Footloose” before falling down a hill … and falling … and falling … like Wile E. Coyote in a jumpsuit.
“Hot Rod” doesn’t take its triumph-of-the-loser plot seriously for a second, indulging in utterly ridiculous asides; before one jump, Rod calls on the spirit of the eagle and the bottle-nosed dolphin to aid him while images of the animals hover above his head on screen. In another scene, a member of Rod’s crew pummels an innocent bystander while yelling, “I been drinkin’ green tea all damn day!” There’s even a musical number that turns into something gone very wrong — think “Do the Right Thing’s” fiery climax — and a cameo by Ebenezer Scrooge. Just because.
Meanwhile, if you came to “Hot Rod” to see some impressive auto stunt work, you’re in the wrong theater, and should consider sneaking into the breathtaking “Bourne Ultimatum” instead.
The movie’s script isn’t as smart as, say, anything with Judd Apatow’s name on it, and the bleary cinematography by Andrew Dunn is dingy, perhaps intentionally so. But director Akiva Schaffer, a longtime collaborator of Samberg’s who directed the now-legendary “Lazy Sunday” and “D--k in a Box” videos for “SNL,” maintains a brisk pace (the movie runs a lean 88 minutes) and bolsters the action with a hilarious supporting cast of vets (McShane, Sissy Spacek), comedy up-and-comers (Will Arnett, Isla Fisher, Bill Hader), and newcomer Jorma Taccone (another longtime Samberg associate — he wrote the hummable tunes for both of the aforementioned videos).
Ultimately it’s Samberg, whose youthful enthusiasm and infectious goofiness has been one of “SNL’s” strongest assets of late, who makes the whole thing work. Whether he’s setting himself on fire to entertain at a kiddy birthday party or turning the phrase “cool beans” into a piece of turntable-scratching performance art, Samberg bends over backwards (at times literally) to get a laugh. And more often than not, he earns them, making the whole movie go “Vroom.”