Hot Rod, Superbad, and realism’s victory over weirdness

It’s been 10 years since Superbad burst into cinemas, cementing its place in the cultural canon with its acerbic charm and slew of dick jokes. In the last decade, Superbad hasn’t quite earned the classic status of something like Mean Girls, but the name McLovin will live on in infamy and the film is responsible for launching half its cast towards fame and fortune. Critics enjoyed it, audiences loved it, and Superbad proved a steady smash at the box office.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the charts, another comedy was getting its teeth kicked in.  Despite their impressive online fanbase as one of the first internet stars, The Lonely Island didn’t smoothly transition to the big screen, and Hot Rod bombed at the box office, making in eight weeks what Superbad took opening night. Critical response wasn’t particularly favourable either, although Roger Ebert praised the film’s unique spin on tired concepts, and Andy Samberg’s lead performance as Rod himself. Dismissed by critics and ignored by audiences, Hot Rod left cinemas without even making back its budget, and the Lonely Island trudged back to what they do best, ditching the silver screen for the welcoming arms of SNL and Youtube.

But what did Superbad have that Hot Rod didn’t? In honour of their tenth anniversary, it’s time to dive back into the comedy world of 2007 and see why Hollywood chose Apatopia over Island life.

Jonah Hill and Michael Cera. Courtesy of: Columbia Pictures

Like many comedy films, Superbad is built on the backs of its leads – and while audiences were rolling in the aisles for McLovin, it was Seth and Evan’s bromance that struck a chord with audiences. Their natural chemistry is equally a credit to the script and the actors – who both knock it out of the park in their first leading roles. The Jump Street series proves that Jonah Hill works best in a duo; his tightly wound style bounces well against a comedian with a looser, slower energy. Channing Tatum is an amazing foil for Hill, but their odd couple squabbling doesn’t hold a candle to his connection to Michael Cera, whose deadpan introverted vibe pairs with Hill’s erratic sensibilities. Their friendship feels lived in, and credit is due to Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s script, which perfectly transposes their real-life relationship onto celluloid.

Hot Rod doesn’t have the same well to draw from – it was originally written as a Will Ferrell vehicle, before being handed over to the Lonely Island by Lorne Michaels – but Andy Samberg grabs Rod with gusto and sells his wacky charm for all he’s worth. This seems to have been part of the problem – where Superbad went for realism, holding a mirror up to sad sweary teenagers everywhere, Hot Rod took a different approach with its lead. Rod is dedicated, earnest, and definitely not your average guy. He’s basically a huge weirdo, and this extends to his insane relationships with his family, including his stepbrother Kevin – which has all the humour and heart of Seth and Evan’s relationship (and clearly also draws from the longstanding friendship of Samberg and Jorma Taccone), but avoids nuance in favour of repeating ‘Cool Beans’ over and over again.

Bringing up Rod’s family is a neat segue into my next point (look at that, such tidy writing) – the ensemble cast. Sure, both films are centred on their lead performances, but their laughs-per-second rate relies on their stacked ensembles. McLovin needs no introduction of course, but Seth Rogen and Bill Hader are equally responsible for the hilarity of their police-gone-wild subplot. Unfortunately, like many of these films (Hot Rod included), Superbad doesn’t have a lot to offer in the way of female roles, but Emma Stone gets the chance to display her legendary and now oscar-winning charisma in her film debut.

Like in many teen films, the grown-ups of Superbad are just as hapless and testosterone-fuelled as their offspring, and Hot Rod is no different for the most part – Will Arnett and Chris Parnell both make an impression as Alpha-Bro Jonathan Adult and dedicated AM Radio DJ Barry Pasternack. When it comes to Rod’s parents though, Hot Rod ups the ante.

Ian McShane and Sissy Spacek. Courtesy of: Paramount

Sissy Spacek plays it completely straight as Rod’s mother, not batting an eyelid as Rod suits up in football pads and a fake moustache to try and fight his grizzled stepfather. Ian McShane is always brilliant, but he steals every scene as Frank wields kendo sticks and sprouts bewildering life advice – you won’t be sneaking up on a man who’s been in a chemical fire anytime soon.

This kind of weirdness permeates Hot Rod at every level – even the plot is insane, as Rod fights tooth and nail to earn $50,000 to save Frank’s life, just so he can finally beat the shit out of him. And sadly, people just weren’t into it – although opening against The Bourne Ultimatum and a week after The Simpsons Movie can’t have been good for its box office numbers. Superbad had it a little easier, contending only with Fox’s ill-fated Bodysnatchers reboot The Invasion, and the US Death at a Funeral remake.

Andy Samberg as Conner. Courtesy of: Universal

Sadly the audiences of 2007 weren’t interested in the surrealist shtick of Hot Rod and it doesn’t look like things have changed much. Last year’s PopStar: Never Stop Never Stopping fared even worse at the box office – despite positive reviews from critics this time around. Meanwhile, Apatow and co have gone from strength to strength, dominating the comedy landscape for the last decade with his now-patented mix of improvisational grounded comedy that isn’t afraid to get real when the topic calls for it. Superbad is no different; growing up is difficult, and Superbad is seeped in pathos for its teenagers, as they struggle to keep it together in the face of the oncoming storm – college. While Hot Rod is always laughing with Rod, he’s not exactly relatable, and the film lacks the emotional streak that takes Superbad on another level.

But does every comedy need to be grounded? Hell no, and hopefully as other filmmakers like Taika Waititi hit the bigtime with their own brand of wacky nonsense, film fans will stumble on Hot Rod and fall in love with this big-hearted, fake-moustachioed weirdo. And it’ll be cool beans.