Thursday, June 2, 2016

Theory Thursday: "Hot Rod" is an Underrated Gem

Andy Samberg
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is released in theaters this Friday.
Theory: Hot Rod is an underrated gem.

Left to right: Isla Fisher and Samberg
I admit that some weeks are harder to do this column than others. This just happens to be one of them. With no release that could easily be tied into Academy Awards trivia, one has to think outside of the box. Speaking as co-directors Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone's Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is a film with some potential for creative conversation, I have decided to use it as a launchpad. But where do you go? To talk about best musical comedy or even mockumentary is to tread familiar ground within The Blues Brothers or This is Spinal Tap territory. Theory Thursday is about uncommon or "controversial" opinions. There has to be something else that immediately grabs attention when clicking through these articles. It is here that I've decided to hit the more familiar nail on the head and discuss Popstar star Andy Samberg's own career, especially in relation to Schaffer and Taccone.

Together, the group is best known as The Lonely Island. Thanks in large part to short videos that have played on Saturday Night Live, they may as well be considered the most well known comedy pop act since Weird Al or Tenacious D. They have released a string of great music over the past decade after jumping to fame with SNL's "Lazy Sunday" video that chronicled Samberg and Chris Parnell's journey to see The Chronicles of Narnia in theaters. Along with later hits like "Dick in a Box" and Natalie Portman's profane rap, the trio became an internet sensation before breaking out into their own world with even more inspired work on the albums "Incredibad" and "Turtleneck & Chain." Both Schaffer and Taccone have also made a variety of cult comedies as directors and writers; like The Watch, MacGruber, and a film that may as well be the closest that The Lonely Island get to a biopic with Popstar.

However, most of their non-music career began in 2007 with Schaffer's solo directorial debut Hot Rod. While Samberg had been making the rounds on SNL, it was this early comedy that solidified his ability to transition to film. It's a film in which Rod (Samberg) plays a lousy stunt performer who along with his loser friends manage to win over the community, his father's (Ian McShane) respect, and the girl of his dreams (Isla Fisher). The film is a mishmash of lo-fi techniques that were big on YouTube at the time as well as a large throwback to 80's culture, including the most haphazard (in a good way) parody of The Karate Kid. Yes, there's plenty of lowbrow humor and it does end with his father needing to rush to the bathroom. However, it's generally evidence that Samberg and crew knew how to make a style of comedy that is only coming back around after being hijacked earlier in 2007 by Judd Apatow's (who, ironically, is producing Popstar) improv-heavy sit-and-talk style of comedy with Knocked Up.

In a crass sense, Samberg's Hot Rod maybe penned him to be the millennial version of Adam Sandler. It was a film not unlike the now maligned actor's mid-90's output like Happy Gilmore and The Waterboy that featured ribald freak-outs, nonsensical tangents, and plenty of slapstick. One wouldn't be too far off from this analogy, as the duo have worked together multiple times in the years since. However, this film more embodies the era of Sandler that audiences actually liked more than the current Netflix-dealing wreck that he's become. For starters, the key difference is that Samberg manages to be sympathetic among his ridiculous beatings, and his ability to do so amid defeat is evidence of the great comedic underdog. It just happens to have Jackass-lite brutality as the punchline.

Admittedly, the story is more impressive as a gag machine than for its plot. The conventions really do stem from the familiar 80's teenage comedies like Better Off Dead. However, it feels like a mesh of culture with the A.D.D.-laced era that has only gotten worse in the years following Hot Rod with the rise of Vine and six second videos. Somehow saying "Cool Beans" for half a minute now seems too long as well as predictive. However, it could just be that Samberg embodies the stunted growth and delusional, Don Quixote-esque desire to follow the impossible dream of performing stunts despite spectacularly failing. The fact that he ends the film in one piece is beyond impressive. He rolls down hills, falls into pools, and even collides with a van after going down a steep incline. Most of it is actually caused from improper training of his team, played by Taccone, Bill Hader, and Danny McBride - who all have their chance to spout one-liners to inflate Rod's ego. 

The comedy does lack intellect and is more reflective of the stunted growth that Apatow has made a career out of chronicling. This is obvious in the comedic struggles between Rod and his father. It is clear in the strange fascination with doing a random performance midway through the film to John Farnham's "You're the Voice" before starting a riot. In Hot Rod, things just happen due to lack of attention span, and it explores a youthful story that may just be an excuse to see Samberg fail while forming speech impediments, but it still is also a film that reflected the capabilities of The Lonely Island to create a movie that was actually palpable and interesting. Taccone would make his own directorial debut a few years later with MacGruber, which itself has formed a cult following despite being considered one of the lesser SNL movies.

Scene from Hot Rod
Like every Lonely Island collaboration since (and every non-Samberg movie for that matter), the film didn't fare too well at the box office. Even on a $25 million budget, it made $14 million. It currently holds a ridiculous 40% on critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes. Of course, it is the type of film that was going temporarily out of style in 2007, even with the rise of Samberg in his three minute internet chunks. While it helps to add to the team's cult status, it also seems to bury it and makes it lesser known for an actor who has had an impressive amount of success, including a Golden Globe-winning series like Brooklyn Nine-Nine. There is an audience out there for it, but most of the "cult status" debate gets thrown over to MacGruber - which is an opinion I do not share. Hot Rod is a film that deserves more love, even if it's literally a "What did you expect?" kind of comedy where Samberg smashes into things. Still, it's got quite the endearing spirit among the injuries.

I admit that beyond the music, The Lonely Island has been hit-and-miss for me. Popstar unfortunately looks like it will have a better soundtrack than film. However, I still think that there's some curiosity that still exists in me for the gang thanks in large part to how well Hot Rod just works as a barrage of slapstick. If nothing else, it remains the best thing that the team has done together in cinema. It shows their personalities condensed to their very essence in ways that may be too idiosyncratic for most, but still manages to provide a fun and lighthearted comedy that doesn't satirize underdogs to be cruel, but to capture a certain magic found within everyone at a young age. We all want to overcome our hurdles and be respected by our peers. The only difference is that most of them don't involve massive bruises.

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