Film review: “Hot Rod”, or: (A Good Comedy is Not Hard to Find)

May 13, 2016, 12:07 a.m.

“It’s no real pleasure in life,” Flannery O’Connor once wrote. And as wise as O’Connor was, it’s a shame she didn’t live to see “Hot Rod.”

This 2007 absurdist firework motorcycle movie doesn’t deserve the label of “trash” — it’s one of the best American comedies of the century. It’s an absolute classic, and it’ll jump as many county pools as it needs to prove it.

Rod’s titular journey is the journey of every hero. He has to complete an impossible radio station-sponsored jump in the hopes of winning his dying stepfather’s respect and love. It’s the kind of thing a nervous eighth grader imagines in his notebook — two parts Joseph Campbell and three parts spaceship rocket dream. Rod is a terrible stuntman, forging new failures with the support of his idiosyncratic crew (Jorma Taccone, Bill Hader, Danny McBride and Isla Fisher).

Veteran television writer Pam Brady’s script is a constant delight, mixing the frantic realism of American life with the parodic abandon endemic to director Akiva Schaffer’s work as part of the Lonely Island trio (fellow members Andy Samberg and Jorma Taccone star). Despite the parody inherent to the movie’s charms, Brady and Schaffer never simply laugh at Rod – somewhere along the way, as the world laughs and things fall apart, we begin to believe in the escape, the dream and the heavy metal nonsense that comes from hoping to be part of something far larger than life.

I can’t stop thinking about how funny this movie is. I want to repeat every joke, every line, every montage, like an enthusiastic teen who’s just discovered irony. Here’s a running joke – Rod almost dies. A lot. He falls through a forest while training, he slams into an RV, he nearly drowns in a two-foot portable pool. In one of the film’s funniest and most surprising sequences, a violent riot breaks out in the midst of a training-before-the-final-climax montage. This brand of committed ’80s-style parody can be thrilling, but the laughs and resonances are never limited to the absurd – the yellow grass setting and brand-name diners remind me of the world I once knew.

Schaffer’s visual style certainly helps – when the sun-dappled montages stop, the canary shirts and moderately priced dining of smalltown America take over, granting a vulnerability to the crew’s less-than-motley efforts. Rod’s crew dances and claps outside a gas station to classic pop; his homemade protective gear snaps and fails. Nothing is safe from absurdity, but everything remains real (thanks to a brilliant ensemble that includes Sissy Spacek, Will Arnett, Chris Parnell and Ian McShane).

Modern studio comedy tends to separate the serious and the fun. Characters learn storybook lessons in add-on heartfelt plots that exist apart from the improvised medium-shot dialogue meant to bring laughs. Here, the emotional beats (while not always pitch-perfect) stem from Rod’s fractured trip to arrested adulthood. Of course he never reaches full maturity, because this isn’t a movie that feels the need to lie about what it actually is: a deep dive into the ridiculous and heartfelt soul of aspiration, amplified by Schaffer’s keen ability to replicate the genre and the pulsing belief present in the electro-synth, glam-rock score.  

Some of this aspirational bullshit is still alluring, if only for the friendship and freedom it provides Rod and his pals. They want to leap forever; they want to keep AM radio gleefully alive. Why not try? Even as it rips the fake mustache off idealized post-war masculinity, “Hot Rod” keeps us laughing, confused and daydreaming through the heaving everyday.


Contact Connor Huchton at [email protected].

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