Clever Stupid

Hot Rod is one of my favorite movies. I’ve got its poster framed in my living room, and it’a movie that I’ve analyzed on this blog for its presentation of Rod’s mustache as a symbol of self-actualization. It’s also not a movie you’d expect to be analyzed, seeing as Hot Rod is, well, incredibly stupid. It’s about a (bad) amateur stuntman who needs to raise enough money to save his stepfather’s life so he can beat the crap out of him (and earn his respect).

Like I said, incredibly stupid.

But.

But but but, what makes Hot Rod so flipping great is how well it harnesses that stupidity. It’s not a smart comedy, and has no intention to be, but it’s done really well. It’s not just dumb jokes, well, it is, but the dumb jokes are couched with a great deal of craft. The team behind the movie (which happens to be a pre-“I’m On a Boat” Lonely Island) know exactly what they’re doing throughout.

Because of this, laughs don’t feel cheap. Yes, there’ll be a throwaway gag involving Cool Beans or exactly how it is you proceed that elusive ‘wh’ sound, but the comedy is anchored in character. There’s a strong central story, characters are fleshed out and have goals; the comedy, stupid as it may be, exists in tandem with the story. The characters don’t feel like they’re just there to be funny or laughed at; it is, put simply, a clever stupid movie.

So why does Hot Rod work?

Hot Rod doesn’t talk down to its audience. Though the film’s humor relies primarily on slapstick, non sequiturs, and downright silliness, never once does it treat its viewers as if they are idiots. In that process, the movie establishes that the audience is in on the joke. The movie isn’t just trying to serve up something barely palatable for laughs. It also helps that Hot Rod isn’t particularly mean. For all its silliness, Hot Rod lets its characters live. There’s nothing vindictive about Rod falling in a pool, or Rod tumbling down a hill for an inane amount of time, or Rod getting hit by a van (again). We enjoy Rod’s pain, but we’re not interested in watching him suffer. Because, and this may be in part to blame on Andy Samberg’s performance, we actually like Rod.

And that’s the proverbial second shoe. Couched among all those silly jokes is that sense of character I mentioned earlier. Rod and his crew, Kevin, Dave, Rico, and Denise, don’t exist just for the sake of jokes. Yes, they’re funny, often outright hilarious, but amidst all that humor are genuine relationships. The characters feel real — well, as real as they can in such an odd world — and, as such, we get invested in them and their plight. We want these idiots to succeed, and we care about their relationships. Stupid as Hot Rod might be, it doesn’t dispense with the humanity of the story.

That’s the thing about Hot Rod, it doesn’t just coast by on stupid and silly jokes, it actually bothers to create a story and characters for those jokes to exist in. Even though they aren’t particularly groundbreaking, they’re executed with enough of a precision that it works on a narrative level. As stupid as it can be, there is a great intelligence in its creation. The movie knows when and how to be silly, there’s a deftness, a cleverness to its stupidity.

And that is how it’s done.

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