MOVIE REVIEW: 'Hot Rod' is part clunker

08/04/2007 1:21 PM

08/06/2007 9:49 PM

"Hot Rod" flies high at times for the same reason it eats dirt at others.

A collaboration among "Saturday Night Live" regular Andy Samberg and longtime pals Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, the film consists of a simple premise - Samberg as a hapless would-be stuntman - and a lot of goofing off.

Its absolute lack of structure, combined with the chumminess of the parties involved, leads inevitably to a mix of inspired and dead-in-the-water moments. But Samberg, part puppyish kid and part chiseled leading man, is fun to watch.

Schaffer directs the picture with no visual style. That's not necessarily a criticism.

Exteriors and interiors seem scruffy yet believably, cozily Anytown, U.S.A. - or Anytown, Canada, since the film was shot in British Columbia. You can see, in this place, why Rod seeks escape through dreams of being a stuntman like his late dad and also why he still lives at home, with his mom (Sissy Spacek) and stepdad (Ian McShane).

It's a town where it's easy to be a late-20s guy stuck in adolescence. There are other guys (Bill Hader and Danny McBride, both of whom get moments to shine) like Rod. Their days consist of drinking beer, hanging at the local burger joint and being part of Rod's stunt crew.

Or maybe Samberg and his co-stars are supposed to be 20 instead of 28. The film doesn't go into that much detail. Or any detail at all.

This approach eases the way for Rod's pretty next-door-neighbor ("Wedding Crashers" breakout Isla Fisher, subdued and almost hesitant here, as if waiting for clearer direction) to join his stunt crew. Although Rod mentions that she went to college, she seems to lack a job or any other way to spend her days.

Though ostensibly paying homage to his late dad, Rod's stunts - such as an ill-fated jump via a pedal-powered moped - really are aimed at impressing his tough stepfather, Frank. As Rod explains to his sweet half-brother (Taccone), Rod, as the stepson, has to earn Frank's love.

The Frank-Rod scenes provide consistent laughs, with the growly McShane ("Deadwood") appearing slightly amused to have found himself in this film. An unmovable force in a velour track suit, Frank appears physically and emotionally impervious to Rod's boiling rage and attempts to overpower the older man.

Frank's need for a heart transplant provides an excellent motivator for Rod. He plans to earn money to stage a big stunt to pay for Frank's new heart - so he can get another shot at beating the guy up.

This campaign leads to a series of fiery and/or bone-crushing wipeouts. None impresses like Samberg's homage to Kevin Bacon's "punch-dancing" outdoor scene from "Footloose." The obviousness of dance and stunt doubles makes this sequence a tribute to "Flashdance" as well.

Though the script is credited to Pam Brady, the movie carries the imprint of Samberg, Taccone and Schaffer, the pop culture-savvy, Berkeley-raised trio responsible for the viral video sensation "Lazy Sunday." And for the other one, with Justin Timberlake and the container.

But things that crack up these guys leave other people straight-faced. Some of the mugging and quirky line readings probably should have been excised. A riot scene - including the overturning of an occupied wheelchair - doesn't belong in the film at all. But Samberg and company seem fully committed to a haphazard approach.

The true head-scratcher of "Hot Rod" is Spacek's appearance in the film. McShane at least gets to play a fun character. The mom is a stock role.

A scene in which Rod's antics unintentionally provoke laughter in a crowded auditorium evokes the "they're all going to laugh at you" scene from "Carrie" - and increases a film lover's sadness at seeing Spacek in such a nothing part.

2 stars

Cast: Andy Samberg, Isla Fisher, Jorma Taccone, Bill Hader, Danny McBride, Will Arnett, Sissy Spacek and Ian McShane

Director: Akiva Schaffer

Writer: Pam Brady

Distributor: Paramount

Running time: 88 minutes

Rated PG-13 (language, crude humor, some comic drug-related and violent content).

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