“Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels has an infamously spotty track record when it comes to the big screen, but perhaps that’s to be expected: Stretching five-minute sketches into feature-length productions is never a simple task, given that so many of them feature characters whose defining trait is their willingness to fall down on cue.
Rod Kimble, the aspiring but hopelessly incompetent stuntman who attempts to steal Evel Knievel’s thunder in “Hot Rod,” is just such a character. As he trains in preparation for his piece de résistance — a daring leap over 15 school buses — he survives a series of brutal beatings, whether he’s being slammed to the ground by his buddy’s van or offering up his body, quite literally, as a human piñata.
And yet he’s not without a certain goofy charm. As played by Andy Samberg, Kimble is earnest and aggressively dim-witted, prone to comically overwrought bouts of momentary depression and fits of spastic “punch-dancing” inspired by Kevin Bacon in “Footloose.” Before he’s done, he gets the girl (Isla Fisher, of “Wedding Crashers”) and raises enough money to save his terminally ill father (Ian McShane), but those victories are incidental — Rod Kimble is never far from his next screw-up.
Samberg, the rising “SNL” star best known for popular video shorts such as “Lazy Sunday,” never takes his character too seriously, and why should he? “Hot Rod” is slight and substance-free, a loosely organized collection of pratfalls and absurdities, but where else are you going to find an overstuffed taco brawling with a grilled cheese sandwich?
None of this seems lost on the movie’s cast of comic naturals, who inhabit their roles with facetious abandon. Samberg’s fellow “SNL” veteran and “Lazy Sunday” co-star Chris Parnell is particularly sharp as a smooth-talking DJ who believes, more than a little wistfully, that AM radio is the wave of the future.
Will “Hot Rod” win any awards? Not likely. But it is very, very funny from start to finish, a strange and inspired lunatic journey that turns anarchic stupidity into an art form. Sustained by the kind of creative energy so lacking in the most disposable “SNL” spin-offs, and blissfully liberated from logic and reason, it plays by its own twisted rules and, surprisingly, comes up a winner.
Hot Rod ***½
Starring Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, Bill Hader, Danny McBride, Isla Fisher, Will Arnett
Written by Pam Brady
Directed by Akiva Schaffer
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes