It's a widely-known fact that all movies based on Saturday Night Live characters pretty much suck. OK, so it's not exactly a fact -- but it is a universally-held and widely-shared opinion, which is pretty much the same thing, isn't it? (Obviously The Blues Brothers is exempt from this rule, being that it was the first "SNL movie," it was directed by an actual filmmaker, and it rocks.) For the record, the SNL movies I'm generally referring to are titles like A Night at the Roxbury, It's Pat, Superstar, The Ladies Man, Coneheads, etc. -- stuff that made for perfectly entertaining 5-minute skits, but suffered mightily when stretched out like so much Silly Putty.
An SNL film through and through (although the characters were created specifically for the flick), Akiva Schaffer's Hot Rod is a whole lot like an entire episode of Saturday Night Live: A few stray moments of bizarre wit, clever satire and amusing weirdness -- couched between a whole lot of filler that's either A) not funny to anyone besides the performers, or B) almost painful to witness. Lead actor Andy Samberg clearly has some comedy chops and a gift for the disarmingly strange, but based on what's found in Hot Rod the guy seems better suited for a cable TV variety show than for feature films.
The screenplay reads exactly like a Will Ferrell movie down to the slightest touch of silliness: A petulant man-child called Rod Kimble fancies himself a mega-awesome stuntman -- despite the fact that he has no discernible skill at the craft. But it gives Samberg several opportunities to fall down and behave like a clueless dolt, so I guess the concept works as well as needed. Kimble has a crew of dopey pals, a beautiful love interest (of course), and a disapproving stepfather who needs $50,000 for a heart transplant. So clearly you know where the movie's headed, plot-wise. Combining the eye-rolling passive-aggressive stupidity of a Napoleon Dynamite with the silly arrogance of a Will Ferrell, Samberg wobbles through the rudderless movie on auto-pilot. The flick's best moments are all isolated moments of silliness -- a strange montage in which some smiling goofball dances all over the place, an arcane dream sequence involving tacos and grilled cheese -- and each of the characters get to mutter one or two genuinely funny lines, but Hot Rod feels like 20 minutes of rock-solid comedy dropped haphazardly into an 85-minute frame. For every singular piece of inspired absurdity, there are at least three or four other gags that hit the screen with an audible thud.
Samberg, Schaffer and screenwriter Pam Brady deserve some credit for "going weird" on numerous occasions (suffice to say I'll never hear the phrase "cool beans" the same way again) but the flick's best bits are completely overshadowed by the stuff that's redundant, obvious or just plain dumb. Why they opted to hire the seriously funny Isla Fisher and then cast her in a laugh-free role ... it's just beyond me. (And why Sissy Spacek signed on for a pointless gig as Kimble's plain-jane mom is another small mystery.) To his credit, the surprisingly game Ian McShane earns a few chuckles as a free-swingin' stepfather. Will Arnett and Chris Parnell stop by briefly, delivering too few laughs considering their talents.
On the whole, Hot Rod should capably please the established fans of Samberg's strange sense of humor, but even those supporters will walk out wishing the flick had a little more meat on it. While certainly not on the same sub-level as the other SNL flicks, Hot Rod is more like 25% inspired weirdness and 75% recycled stuff. Andy Samberg might be due for a Ferrell / Sandler type breakthrough some time soon, but Hot Rod sure isn't it.