This week sees the theatrical debut of Popstar, the new movie from the SNL-minted and YouTube-affirmed star comedy group The Lonely Island — a trio made up of filmmaker-performers Andy Samberg, Jorma Toccone, and Akiva Schaffer. But if Popstar sees The Lonely Island fully extending their familiar overconfident SNL personas into feature-length filmmaking, their first film, Hot Rod, takes a look at the world of a scrappy underdog made when The Lonely Island was made up of scrappy underdogs themselves.
Hot Rod was originally conceived as a vehicle for Will Ferrell, and when the project failed to materialize with Ferrell, the script was passed to Lorne Michaels, who lobbied for The Lonely Island, then just coming off of their first viral hit with “Lazy Sunday.” Though the group was completely inexperienced with feature filmmaking, The Lonely Island retooled Pam Brady’s script, and what results is a kind of Ferrell-Island hybrid, a movie that reveals the unique and forward-thinking elements of The Lonely Island’s style through the divergences the group was able to finagle from a script written to reflect the comedy landscape of the early 2000s.
What feels most recycled in Hot Rod is the story, as Rod tries to solve his daddy-issue dilemma and win the girl of his dreams by mastering a nostalgic sport in a plot that might have been lifted right out of any familiar mid ‘00s comedies, from Dodgeball to Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. But whether it’s Ben Stiller or Will Ferrell, the stars that came before The Lonely Island were comedian performers, building laughs within a story by escalating the behaviors of an archetypal character — from Stiller’s fat suit dance in Dodgeball to Ferrell’s nearly nude attempt to put out a nonexistent fire after a car crash in Talladega Nights. By contrast, The Lonely Island are comedian filmmakers, and their jokes come from manipulating not what we watch but how we watch it.
Hot Rod draws attention to the artificiality of the world we inhabit, from Rod’s lace front mustache to anachronisms like Ebenezer Scrooge appearing to offer a holiday ham at the film’s happy conclusion. It’s funny not because we’re familiar with the characters, but in spite of our familiarity. Samberg’s insincere sincerity as a performer encourages us to keep our emotional distance from Rod, even in climactic scenes like Rod’s reconciliation with his stepfather that might have been high points for a performer like Will Ferrell, whose best comedy often comes as a kind of ecstatic synthesis with narrative (a few examples of those sweet spots include the breakdown in a telephone booth in Anchorman, the final ice dance in Blades of Glory, and the tabletop makeout with no-longer-mousey Amy Adams in Talladega Nights).
Instead in Hot Rod, the moments that are most sincere and most narratively motivated are the moments that feel the most enervating. What’s fun in Hot Rod isn’t watching Rod inevitably crash his bike and rise up for the cheering crowd, but the shot right before it, when Rod floats in the air, incongruously suspended off his bike even as they fly in perfect synchronicity. The obvious visual effects include easily masked matte lines around Samberg and the bike, making a joke out of the fakeness of the story, the image, the character, and filmmaking as a medium. The joke isn’t that Rod is falling off his bike, it’s that Andy Samberg is pretending to ride a bike at all.
Samberg acknowledged the influence of Wet Hot American Summer in making Hot Rod, and that movie’s sense of the surreal often takes over the proceedings in Hot Rod — instead of a day out at the crack house, there’s a pommel horse–and-front-flips dance interlude right out of Footloose. Instead of a talking can of beans, there’s a dream in which a taco and a grilled cheese fight in a wrestling match. But where Wet Hot American Summer plays consistently as a narrative, even at its most outré, Hot Rod regularly stops and starts, the narrative acting as a string to connect disorienting and story-halting comic bits on anything from words that start with “wh” to tattoos of cartoons peeing on the specters of TV and FM radio.
The Lonely Island got their start in viral video, and in their feature work there’s still a sense of allegiance to short form. In what’s probably the most Lonely Island moment of the movie, Samberg and Jorma Taccone repeat the phrase “cool beans” back and forth to each other, the cuts between the shots of each of the actors meshing with the manipulation of their voices to create a kind of a house loop that could have made a backing track for one of their raps on Saturday Night Live.
When Hot Rod was released in theaters, Samberg predicted that the movie wouldn’t be well received, and he was right. Hot Rod was a flop, just like Wet Hot American Summer before it, earning mixed reviews and a tepid $14 million at the box office, with most critics singling out the idiosyncrasies of The Lonely Island’s style as the reason for the film’s failure.
“If you're looking for plausibility, this is not your movie. If you're looking for laughs, this is not your movie,” wrote Claudia Puig for USA Today. “It's amusing every five or so minutes; and some sequences, like a surreal musical number that abruptly erupts into a street riot, warrant being forwarded to friends,” offered then Boston Globe critic Wesley Morris, before continuing, “This is great news for those of us who like the beginning of a film to reach the end in under five minutes. It's not so good for people who like to get lost in a movie.”
But if in 2007 watching movies in five-minute clips was a relative novelty, by 2016 it’s become the norm, as YouTube’s growth has outpaced the days of early viral hits like “Lazy Sunday." Even if a million tickets are bought to see Popstar in theaters, that's still a couple hundred million views fewer than The Lonely Island's most popular digital shorts. Though the members of The Lonely Island have been a constant presence as individuals on TV, in indie movies, and on computer screens, it’s taken nearly 10 years for the group to come together and make a major theatrical release to follow Hot Rod — when it came to feature filmmaking, audiences needed time to catch up.