It's not exactly going out on a limb to say that Andy Samberg has been the best addition to the Saturday Night Live cast in a long time – he's been the main reason that for the first time since the dawn of the Internet age, fans actually started downloading video from the show. While Lorne Michaels still likes to try to force repetitive gags down our throats, “Dick in a Box” and “Chronic-What?-cles of Narnia” became oft-repeated catchphrases because people actually thought they were funny; the last time that happened was Christopher Walken saying “More cowbell!” and frankly, that's only because Walken could turn anything into a catchphrase.
Samberg's best quality as an SNL cast member is that he doesn't have that narcissistic, grinning-at-himself quality that so many, from Myers to Sandler to Kattan to, God help us, Dennis Miller, who now actually takes himself seriously as a political pundit. You can usually sense when a cast member is dead certain that he's hilarious, but Samberg actually takes the piss out of that whole notion, playing characters who are certain they're hilarious and/or cool, but are really completely pathetic...so much so that they almost become cool on their own terms.
Perhaps the best compliment one can pay to his first starring vehicle, Hot Rod, is that it doesn't feel anything like an SNL spin-off movie; were it not for the Paramount logo and the familiarity of its star, one could easily mistake this for an independent film made by some untapped talent from the middle of nowhere. In fact, its director is regular Samberg collaborator Akiva Schaffer.
The trailer may have primed you for a George of the Jungle style comedy where the entire joke is Samberg's aspiring stuntman Rod Kimble getting hurt, and that's definitely part of the appeal here...but it's far from the whole deal. The script is by Pam Brady, who helped bring us both Team America and the South Park movie, after all, and along with director Schaffer, she free-forms odd riffs to create a final picture that's a little bit George of the Jungle, a little bit Napoleon Dynamite, and a whole lot of the Ernest movies (the good ones, people, and yes, there WERE good ones), with a touch of weirdness all its own. The bottom line, though, is that it's also hands-down the funniest, laugh till you cry and your cheeks hurt comedy of the year, easily besting The Simpsons movie by a mighty leap. (And I'm a pretty depressed guy most of the time, so that's saying a lot.)
Comedy is subjective, however. So if you aren't amused by throwaways like Rod's line to his brother that his film-editing skills could make him “the next Douglas Bubblepants” [If you're asking or hoping for an explanation on that one, this may not be your kind of humor]; or the way Brady and Schaffer dig up John Farnham's '80s hit 'You're the Voice,” turn it into an inspirational mass lip-sync number, and then have it suddenly degrade into a Do the Right Thing riot for no apparent reason, this may not be the movie for you. Or even more subtle choices, like the fact that the movie is almost entirely soundtracked with songs by Europe, yet deliberately omits the one everybody knows (“The Final Countdown”). And the presence of Danny McBride (All the Real Girls) is always welcome – he's one of the few character actors who can nail the Appalachian redneck vibe perfectly, in part because he actually looks like someone from that region; his forthcoming lead role in The Foot Fist Way (which I saw at LAFF two years ago, and is finally going to come out in 2008 sometime) should make believers out of many more – think The Office if it were about a small-town redneck Tae Kwon Do instructor.
This is also a movie that can create a spontaneous musical number using only jump-cuts and the phrase “cool beans.” And has the best use of WWE wrestling T-shirts in a movie ever.
The plot scarcely matters – it's a parody of '80s inspirational movies in which Rod must raise $50,000 to pay for life-saving surgery on his stepdad (Ian McShane). But there's no altruism to the gesture – Stepdad is a bullying jerk who not only physically humiliates Rod, but spends his spare time painting pictures of Rod being sodomized by a horse while saying “I'm an idiot!” via speech-bubble. No, Rod wants to save the old bastard's life so he can one day kick his ass in a fair fight.
It's fair to compare this to Napoleon Dynamite, but it isn't a direct rip-off like Eagle vs. Shark, and perhaps the biggest difference is that it isn't just our geeky hero who's self-deluded and weird – in this world, everyone is. But they're also kind of awesome too.
Look, I'm sure the new Bourne movie is pretty good – I've liked them all, though I'll be damned if I can remember the plot details of either of the first two. I was hoping Underdog might be decent fun, but Disney's decision not to screen it for press is a bad sign. If you want to see Bratz for anything other than train-wreck reasons, you're on your own (My friend Dave White at Movies.com says that at almost two hours long, they should call it “Berlin Alexanderbratz”).
Hot Rod is the movie of the week. And one of the best of the year.