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An idiotic, self-styled stuntman sets about trying to earn the respect of his step-father and make enough cash to buy him a heart transplant, in this comedy from the stars of 'Saturday Night Live'
The new generations of comedy talent have been coming thick and fast from the US, with the rise (or consolidation, in the case of the older guys) of such talents as Napoleon Dynamite creators Jared and Jerusha Hess, Knocked Up-Superbad-Drillbit Taylor collaborators Judd Apatow and Seth Rogan, and of course Adam McKay and Will Ferrell (co-creators of Ron Burgundy and Ricky Bobby), among others.
Some of these folks have a background in that hotbed of US comedy talent 'Saturday Night Live'. Several current 'SNL'-ers are at the heart of Hot Rod, with many making their feature debut: director Akiva Schaffer, star Andy Samberg, and co-stars Jorma Taccone and Bill Hader (familiar as one of the goofy cops in Superbad)
But just because a film's credentials key into a central facet of US comedy history doesn't guarantee it's going to be a classic - and such is the case here. Hot Rod has meagre comedy value, its laughs as haphazard as the 'stunts' of its hero, Rod Kimble.
Rod (Samberg) is too old to be living with his parents and has no gainful employment. He spends his time doing stunts, inspired by the belief that his dead father was Evel Knievel's test-rider. He's aided by his crew: half-brother Kevin (Taccone), and friends Dave (Hader) and Rico (McBride). They're all idiots; even in the context of a comedy film, there are no credible characters here, with the possible exception of Isla Fisher as the love interest.
Rob lives to earn the respect of his stepfather, Frank (McShane), who he regularly challenges to fights, which mother Marie (Spacek) ignores. When it's revealed that Frank will die of heart failure unless he has a $50,000 transplant, Rob vows to raise the money - by coming up with the idea to top Knievel and jump 15 buses. His line to Frank is "I'm going to get you better, then I'm going to beat you to death." Oh, and his stunt bike is a scooter that barely even makes it over one van.
The ensuing trajectory is fairly predictable - lessons are learned, romance blooms, failings are faced up to. While there are more misses than hits in the film there are a few big laughs, and a few bizarre, inventive moments that give the film a vaguely distinctive tone (look out for the odd "cool beans" exchange). The funniest stuff includes some of Rob's abysmal (and painful and embarrassing) stunts, and a sequence in which the frustrated Rob goes to the woods for a session of "Punch-dancing out my rage" to 1980s power-ballads before taking a preposterous, protracted tumble down a mountainside.
On the whole, the dorky, idiotic characters are just too thin (and indeed too sub-Farrelly and very post-Dynamite) and the scenario so undeveloped that the film lacks sufficient substance.
In a nutshell: A perennial problem with comedy from regular collaborators is that the results feel too much like friends' in-jokes. Which is very much the case here. One of those films with enough good material for a trailer, but not a feature.
By Daniel Etherington
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On Film4: 04 April 2015