Hot Rod exploded into movie theaters in the summer of 2007, a halcyon year in which Spider-Man killed Topher Grace with loud noises and Transformers appeared to ruin movies forever. I only knew Andy Samberg from the Dick in a Box sketch that went viral the year before, and I didn’t know anything about his work with The Lonely Island. (Incidentally, Dick in a Box won an Emmy that year, which is absolutely wild to think about.) To be honest, when I went to see Hot Rod I was more excited to see Bill Hader in a movie; it wasn’t until later that I became a Lonely Island fan and came to appreciate the chaotic majesty of Danny McBride’s performance. It was a crowded summer for comedies – Knocked Up was released in June to glowing reviews and incredible box office returns, and Superbad came out within weeks of Hot Rod that August (Superbad also features Hader in a supporting role and McBride in a brief background cameo). 2007 was a year of blockbuster chuckles, but unlike the aforementioned Judd Apatow productions, Hot Rod was not a hit. Interestingly, Hot Rod is also the only one of those movies that isn’t horribly dated, and it’s the only one that I regularly rewatch. It’s my comfort movie, the cinematic equivalent of a sack of Oreos that I reach for any time I start to feel overwhelmingly anxious or depressed. In other words, I’ve probably watched it four or five times over the past two months.
Directed by Samberg’s Lonely Island partner Akiva Schaffer, Hot Rod is a spoof of 1980s extreme sports movies that also manages to simultaneously take place in the 1980s and the early 2000s. Samberg stars as Rod, an amateur stuntman stuck in perpetual adolescence. He lives at home with his brother Kevin (Jorma Taccone), his mother (Sissy Spacek) and his overbearing stepfather Frank (a brilliantly grizzled Ian McShane). But the movie doesn’t dwell on that – Hot Rod isn’t Step Brothers, in which the butt of the joke is the idea that two grown men are behaving like spoiled children. Nobody really reacts to the fact that Rod and his friends are essentially 13-year-olds trapped in adult bodies. To everyone in the film, there’s absolutely nothing out of the ordinary about a group of friends in their late 20s living like teenagers on extended summer vacation. Rod, Kevin, Dave (Hader), and Rico (McBride) are buffoons, but earnestly so – you could replace the entire cast with actual teenagers without having to change a single word of the script. That’s part of the reason why Hot Rod is a movie I keep going back to – its comedy doesn’t target anyone. It doesn’t punch down, or really even punch up. It’s not mean-spirited, and the characters, though over-the-top, aren’t assholes. (Well, except for Will Arnett’s gloriously dickish Jonathan.) They’re just a bunch of goofballs playing in their neighborhood, and I love them all so much that I legitimately get sad every time the end credits start rolling.
Hot Rod is frenetic, unchecked silliness, and there’s something about that silliness that grounds me when I’m feeling like shit. There is zero stress in the film, making it a solid escapist haven. Rod’s low point, when he destroys both a projector and the projectionist’s car and has to give up the money he raised to pay for Frank’s heart surgery, only lasts for a few minutes before another solution presents itself. Jonathan’s assholery is deliberately cartoonish, so we’re never concerned for Denise (Isla Fisher) or compelled to take anything Johnathan says or does seriously. (Their break-up scene remains an all-time great moment, thanks to Arnett’s performance and the expert use of comedic editing.) Nobody is ever in any real trouble, even though Rod’s stunts would seriously injure him in any other universe. In fact, it never realistically addresses any adult concerns at all – it’s about a guy who doesn’t have a job or any apparent need for one, trying to impress his stepfather and his crush by doing low-stakes stunts around suburbia. It’s joyously bizarre and absurdist, so completely divorced from reality and yet so firmly grounded in what I remember about being a kid, even though all the protagonists are older than I am. Simply put, Hot Rod is pure.
Written by South Park’s Pam Brady, Hot Rod was originally conceived as a vehicle for Will Ferrell before it was handed over to the Lonely Island. And while I think Ferrell is a talented performer and have enjoyed several of his movies, I think Hot Rod dodged a massive bullet when he moved on from the project. I mentioned Step Brothers earlier, and regardless of how you feel about that specific film or Ferrell’s work in general, the tone of his comedy is very different. He frequently plays buffoonish man-children like Rod and his friends, but Ferrell’s cretins are often aggressive jerks who create comedy at the expense of others. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but Ferrell’s presence would’ve poisoned the well of earnestness that makes Hot Rod so endearing to me.
I believe that pivot from Ferrell’s brand of humor is another reason why Hot Rod has aged infinitely more gracefully than Knocked Up or Superbad, the two comedy blockbusters that absolutely dusted the Lonely Island’s debut back in 2007 but are physically painful to watch in 2020 thanks to their aggressive misogyny. Hot Rod’s comedy doesn’t victimize anyone, not even the loveable doofuses at the center of it. There’s a cheerful innocence to all the ridiculousness and absurdity, without a trace of cynicism to be found, not even when Frank and Rod are tackling each other through a wall. For me, the appeal of Hot Rod isn’t just that it is extremely funny, but that it is so excited to be funny. Samberg, Taccone, Schaffer, and the entire cast (including some incredible cameos from Chris Parnell and Queens of the Stone Age) fully embrace silliness for its own sake, and the joy with which they do so is immediately infectious in the film’s opening moments. It might not be the greatest comedy ever made, but to me, it’s number one.