Tag Archives: Hot Rod

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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There’s Gotta Be A Change

A big part of movies is the protagonist’s arc. As in they begin in one place, and end in another; they change. Tony Stark learns to take responsibility for his actions. Rey chooses to embrace her destiny. Duncan gets his own back in The Way Way Back. Change is a vital part of a story.

But I’ve been thinking about The Iron Giant a bunch recently (because reasons) and something’s been nagging at my mind: Hogarth doesn’t change all that much. He doesn’t find himself making some massive choice towards the end that sums up his growth throughout the film. Maybe he proves that he can take care of something, but there’s not much of an internal change in Hogarth. But the movie works — why?

I will perpetually hold up Hot Rod as being a fine (albeit surprising) example of excellent storytelling. Seriously, I consider the Lonely Island’s comedy to be near-perfect. The plotting is impeccable and if you wanna learn how to tell a story watch that movie. Now, Rod changes over the course of the movie — somewhat. Sure, he gets his mustache of self-actualization, but Rod at the end of the movie is still very similar to Rod at the start.

The idea of a protagonist changing comes with it the idea of something big. Tony Stark makes a very conscious decision to begin making reparations, and at the end of Iron Man makes a sacrificial play — something he would never have done at the start of the film. Rey takes Maz Kanata’s advice and looks ahead for her belonging rather than waiting on Jakku and, at the end, takes up a lightsaber in the Coolest Moment of 2015. Duncan becomes more assertive through his job at Water Wizz and ultimately makes a stand for himself. But Rod starts as a dude who does stunts and ends the movie as a guy who does stunts. Over the course of his stunt-doing he is able to win the girl, earn the money for his step-dad’s surgery, and then kick his step-dad’s ass. But why? Rod’s arc still works so how does Rod change?

Let’s go over the plot of Hot Rod again. Specifically, when he recommits for good: he’s realized that everyone thinks he’s a joke and he gives up being a stuntman to be an ‘adult,’ donning a button-up shirt and purchasing a shopping cart of liquor. His crew calls him out, saying the best thing about him was how he was always himself. But Rod’s having none of it until that night when he drives his very high friend to the hospital, who too tells Rod how much he means to everyone. So Rod recommits, makes good with his crew, and (attempts to jump) a whole bunch of school buses. At the end, Rod is vindicated. He doubles down on the essence of his character and thus self-actualizes. So no, Rod doesn’t change in a revelatory way (he doesn’t give up stuntmanship in favor of becoming an investment banker), but he makes a decision to really commit to being himself. Rod at the end is accepted by his community (and his step-father) because he is himself. Rod’s arc sees the very fiber of his being put to test and him deciding that himself is the best to be. The change happens in the eyes of those around him, he goes from loser to hero by being himself.

I suppose then, that Rod’s arc is not unlike Hogarth’s in The Iron Giant. Like Rod, Hogarth doesn’t change too much in the film, he reminds a hopeful kid who’s willing to love unconditionally. Also like Rod, Hogarth is ultimately vindicated, with the Iron Giant he vouched for saving the town of Rockwell. Furthermore we get to see Hogarth’s actions reflected in the Giant, who because of Hogarth’s influence is willing to be a sacrifice. Hogarth remains true to himself, and in light of that, the way he is perceived changes around him. He is faced with an ultimate test of character, and by not backing down, saves the day. There’s an arc there, and the status quo, for Hogarth, is different from where he started.

In all honesty, this rant essay my own rambling examination of how arcs work. To sum it all up, I figure changes don’t have to be inside a protagonist, but can also be how the world sees the protagonist. Just so long as it’s done well, but then, that’s a caveat with everything.

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The Mustache of Self-Actualization

I use this blog to hash out ideas for papers sometimes. Writing weekly helps me get ideas sorted or even just to keep churning out 600-800 word rants essays keeps me on my toes. One thing I’ve found myself needing to work on recently is zeroing in on one aspect of a work rather than only looking at the big picture. So I thought I’d do that.

“All great men have mustaches,” says Andy Samberg’s character, Rod early in Hot Rod, hence his choice to wear a fake one while attempting to defeat his stepfather, Frank, in hand-to-hand combat to earn his respect. That is to say, Rod wants to be respected by a “great man” and he believes that the only one who can bestow that on him is his stepfather. Since Frank cares little for Rod’s amateur stuntmanship, Rod’s only recourse is to beat him in a fight, a seemingly impossible task.

Essentially, Rod seeks self-actualization, “to realize one’s own maximum potential and possibilities” [x]. The mustache becomes a symbol of Rod’s desired manliness and: his dead stuntman father had one; Rod adopts a fake one when attempting stunts and combating Frank. Rod can’t grow one (due to a “hormone disorder”), but sees it as necessary to the manly identity of the adults he respects. In a sense he’s playing at being being a man, wearing the mask of who he wants to be.

The occasions where Rod wears the fake mustache reinforces this. Initially, we just see him wearing it when jumping ramps on his moped and fighting Frank. But after he finds out about Frank’s fatal condition and hatches a plan to save him, we also see Rod wearing it while doing stunt work to raise money for Frank. Here Rod is doing things of his own to raise money, entering the sphere of adulthood on his own terms.

But when his plans come crashing down both in the short term, losing the money raised save Frank, and in the long, finding out his father was not a stuntman, Rod grows disillusioned. He tears down posters of stuntmen, stomps on his cape, and, notably, rips apart the fake mustache. Rod is later seen wearing a tie, looking for all the world like a normal adult, albeit one without a mustache.However, he still does not have Frank’s respect and his crew, who’ve stuck by him thus far, leave him. Here he is called out by his love interest, Denise: “You’ve always done exactly what you wanted to do, and everybody else just grew up, and got boring, and sold out, but you stayed exactly the same.” Rather than continuing to emulate the ideas of manliness which he worshipped before, Rod has forfeit his mustachioed goals in favor of becoming boring and selling out to the mainstream conception of adulthood.

So now it’s fitting at the film’s climax when Rod attempts to jump fifteen school buses in a last ditch attempt to earn money for Frank’s surgery, he is once again waring a fake mustache, though this one presented to him by his reunited crew. The use of the mustache is key: his friends already believe that he’s a man worthy of respect both for risking his own life to save his stepfather and for doing it regardless of what other people will think. Rod then attempts the jump and fails. But unlike the last two jumps we’ve seen, where Rod shorts it and crashes into a mail truck or falls into a pool, Rod overshoots and raises enough money to save Frank. After they both heal, Rod — now able to grow his own mustache — confronts a healthy Frank and defeats him, forcing his stepfather to admit that Rod is, in fact, a man.

But Rod has a real mustache in that last scene — and thus is self-actualized — before he defeats Frank. Though he thought that defeating Frank was his goal, it was not the means for his graduation into manhood. Rather he is able to grow a mustache after making something of himself on his own terms: by being a stuntman not because his father was, and not because it was inherently masculine, but because it was taking matters into his own hands and doing what was necessary to achieve his goals despite the setbacks along the way. Rod’s arc culminates with his self-actualization, not by the approval of his stepfather, but by growing from a imitator of men to a person who had discovered what it meant to be a man in his own right..

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Protagonists and Such

Call him the main character, the lead, the hero, the player character; most every good story has a protagonist. He (or she) is the person we follow. Either because they provide the viewpoint and let us into the world or because they’re out on a grand quest. A lot of stories rise and fall based on the protagonist (or lack thereof).

The lack of a protagonist in The Phantom Menace is one of its shortcomings. Obi-Wan would make a great one, only he winds up playing second fiddle to…well, everyone for much of the film (and sits out all of Tatooine). What about Anakin? He doesn’t get introduced until Tatooine and has no character arc (what’s his motivation?) beyond being the kid who wins the podrace and blows up the droid control ship. Heck, he hardly does jack on Coruscant.

Padme, then! Only she doesn’t do much of anything (besides the senate thing) and her duplicity as to who’s actually her and who’s a handmaiden hamper our getting into her as a main character.

Fine! Qui-Gon! He’s awesome, he gets the plot moving, he can be the protagonist, right? Only no. He plays the mentor archetype, the one who guides the protagonist along. Qui-Gon is a static character who guides the plot, but has no personal investment. Plus, at the climax, the duel with Darth Maul is (sad to say) completely irrelevant to the plot.

Basically: there’s no protagonist in The Phantom Menace, no one for us to root for besides the umbrella of “the good guys”. It hampers our investment in the story. It worked for The Empire Strikes Back because we already had our investment in Luke and Han from A New Hope, but in the latter Luke was unquestionably our viewpoint character and protagonist. Menace has no such luck.

Not to say having a clear protagonist means we’ve got a good story on our hands. Let’s look at Twilight (having read a crappy book makes for good examples). Bella is unquestionably the protagonist, but she lacks anything that makes us care. She has no motivation past getting Edward to fall in love with her. She’s boring and has little characterization/use besides being an avatar for the reader. If the protagonist has no proper characterization, arc, or motivation it becomes hard to get invested.

Look, a work doesn’t have to be high art to have a protagonist. Rod, from Hot Rod, is an example of a great protagonist. Does he have characterization? He’s a delusional, hubristic wannabe stuntman, so yes. His arc is to get the girl and save his stepfather’s life so he can kick his ass. Why? Because he wants his stepfather to respect him. Yes, Hot Rod is a (hilarious) stupid film, but there’s a clear protagonist. It works! The Princess Bride has Westley and Buttercup as protagonists and Fezzik and Inigo as deuteragonists. Escape from New York has Snake Plisskin, Final Fantasy VII has Cloud, Chuck has Chuck.

But what about ensembles? Shows like Firefly, How I Met Your Mother, and Lost; who’s the actual protagonist? That’s the beauty of tv, supporting characters can all get their spot in the limelight. An episode like “Ariel” has Simon as one of the primary protagonists, or “The Constant” has Desmond as its protagonist. Several protagonists are far easier in an episodic serial.

Now the big question. The Avengers. It’s got seven main characters (Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Loki). Who’s the protagonist?

They all are. Each one has their character arc and/or motivations (Loki wants to go home, Iron Man grows into a hero, Hawkeye wants to make up for what he did, etc). With or without the prior movies, each protagonist is set up in The Avengers and winds up as a realized character. You can call any one of them the lead (well, maybe not Hawkeye [it’s workable, but definitely a bit of a stretch]), and the movie still works. You can have multiple protagonists, so long as they’re actually protagonists and not a cast of supporting characters.

It feels like it’s the obvious thing. Stories need not just a protagonist, but a good one. Motivations, characterization, an arc and all that. A good protagonist can help even a mediocre plot. Somewhat, anyway. Y’kinda need the whole lot to tell a good story.

But you already knew that.

 

Also: buy my book In Transit! Each story has a clear protagonist!

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