What do you do when Will Ferrell drops out of your movie? Apparently you flip through your Rolodex of "Saturday Night Live" cast members past and present, and find the next best thing. Originally developed as a starring vehicle for Ferrell, 'Hot Rod' instead slots in SNL up-and-comer Andy Samberg, but he's unable to save this second-rate mishmash of Ferrell-isms that only wishes it was half as funny as 'Talladega Nights,' 'Blades of Glory' or 'Anchorman.'
Less a story than it is a series of skits, 'Hot Rod' stars Samberg as Rod Kimble, a stuntman with "a fake mustache and a dream." He wants to follow in the footsteps of his deceased father, who was once poised to be the next Evel Kneivel. Unfortunately for Rod, he's never landed a single jump in his life without wiping out -- much to the delight of his abusive stepfather Frank ('Deadwood's Ian McShane), who revels in Rod's humiliation.
So Rod does what any berated stepson would do: he hatches a plan to pay for Frank's life-saving operation, but only so that he can pull the plug himself in retribution. With a little help from his stepbrother Kevin (Jorma Taccone) and beautiful girlfriend Denise (Isla Fisher), he plots to stage the greatest motorcycle stunt the world has ever seen -- clearing 15 full school buses -- and use the winnings to finish off Frank. Can Rod realize his dream, snare the cash and finally live up to the legacy of dear old dad?
Surprising for a film produced by a major studio, 'Hot Rod' has production values on par with one of those schlocky teen movies Cannon Films used to churn out in the '80s -- the kind that used to play at the local drive-in for a week before heading straight to cable. Directed by Akiva Schaffer and written by Pam Brady (TV's 'South Park'), 'Hot Rod' rips off John Hughes as passionately as Samberg co-opts Ferrell's comedic mannerisms. Admittedly, that does give 'Hot Rod' a weirdly retro charm at times. I enjoyed the affectionate narrative nods to films like 'Footloose,' such as when Samberg spirals into a dance frenzy to work out his frustrations, or the hilarious romantic subplot that arises between Rod and Jonathan (Will Arnett), his ultra-preppy, corvette-driving rival for Denise's affection, which could have easily been lifted straight from 'Pretty in Pink.'
Had 'Hot Rod' really put the pedal to the metal and stuck with being some sort of motorcross parody of '80s teen movies, at least it might have been unique. Unfortunately, Schaffer, Brady, and Samberg seem more focused on pandering to the lowest-common denominator, serving up mostly surface-level parody and gross-out jokes, failing to understand what Ferrell and (to a lesser extent) Adam Sandler seem to have recognized over the years, which is that fart gags and the endless recycling of pop culture references will only get you so far. Films like 'Anchorman' and 'Blades of Glory' work because they seek out more universal targets of parody, and because they also have likable characters and memorable storylines. None of that sort of inspiration or ambition is present in 'Hot Rod,' which instead is just a few pretty funny jokes surrounded by a helluva lot of filler.
As for Samberg himself, I suspect he will emerge unscathed from the box office failure of 'Hot Rod' (the film barely earned $20 million during its domestic run). There are moments when he finds a genuine humanity in Rod, particularly when he embraces the geeky and vulnerable aspects of the character. His performances here and on SNL suggest he has a truly unique comedic inner voice, but similar to other comics currently struggling to break out on the big screen (such as Dane Cook), he just needs to find better material. Until then, 'Hot Rod' amounts to a little more than a mediocre Ferrell leftover.
'Hot Rod' is a pretty cheap-looking production, the kind of low-brow comedy obviously made on the fly. It is also hardly a demo-worthy high-def release, as made clear by the previous HD DVD, which sported a decent enough 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. For whatever reason, Paramount has re-encoded the Blu-ray in VC-1, but otherwise there is scarcely a dime's worth of difference between the two.
The film's cinematography is professional, but unremarkable. Colors are fairly dull, with nothing really jumping out. Contrast is on the hot side, which further washes out the proceedings. At least there's no obvious chroma noise or bleeding, and fleshtones are decent (all things considered). The source is in fine shape, with only slight grain throughout. Blacks are a bit flat, as if all the sun-drenched exteriors seeped into the celluloid itself. The level of detail and depth to the image is adequate, but again this is no reference-quality presentation. Thankfully, compression artifacts are not an issue, and the transfer does have a sharp, smooth look throughout.
Paramount again repeats the previous HD DVD version of 'Hot Rod' with a full-on Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/24-bit). It's a nice mix, and certainly better than the movie really needs.
The film itself may be a forgettable comedy, but surrounds have some surprisingly active moments, particularly the big Evel Kneivel-inspired motorcycle stunt. Discrete effects are fairly pronounced and engaging here, though not overwhelming. The score and use of retro songs on the soundtrack is also well bled throughout the mix. 'Hot Rod' is never that dynamic, however, with bass feeling somewhat muted and a lack of true expansiveness to the rest of the frequency range. Dialogue is recorded decently enough, but the cheapness of the enterprise is apparent in the occasionally shoddy ADR. There are no major source issues, such as overly bright highs or harshness.
In keeping with the general chintziness of 'Hot Rod,' Paramount has produced an appropriately slight supplements package. It's generally amusing and fluffy, but not much else. All features are repeated from the previous HD DVD and DVD versions, with a mix of 1080 and 480 video.
'Hot Rod' is a comedy stuck in neutral. Its wafer-thin storyline is really just a bunch of middling jokes strung together, with rising star Andy Samberg failing to channel the spirit of Will Ferrell. This Blu-ray is in the same league, with just decent video, audio, and supplements. It may still be worth a rental if you're desperate for a little comedy in high-def, but I have to stop short of recommending 'Hot Rod' for purchase. And certainly, if you already own the HD DVD, there's absolutely no reason to pick up this Blu-ray.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.