HOT ROD directed by Akiva Schaffer, written by Pam Brady, with Andy Samberg, Isla Fisher, Jorma Taccone and Ian McShane. A Paramount Pictures release. 88 minutes. Opens Friday (August 3). Rating: NNNN
Who the hell is Andy Samberg?! Seriously. Who is he? Short answer - he's the guy in the Dick In A Box video who's not Justin Timberlake. The long answer is, well, longer. Post-Will Ferrell and Tina Fey, Samberg is the only reason to tune in to Saturday Night Live that doesn't involve Ashlee Simpson battling heartburn.
Now he's attempting a stunt even Super Dave Osborne would balk at: parlaying his status as a YouTube phenom (his Lazy Sunday rap video, aka The Chronic - what?! - cles Of Narnia, was responsible for an 80 per cent increase in traffic to the site, making him YouTube's first superstar) into film stardom.
Amping the degree of difficulty is the fact that he's easily the least-known SNL cast member to star in a movie. He's only been on the show two seasons, and none of his sketch characters spring easily to mind (James Blunt maybe? Screech? Sanjaya? The mutant Martian Kuato from Total Recall?).
And Hot Rod isn't based on an SNL sketch. It's like when Chevy Chase became the first SNLer to leap to the big screen, only he's Chevy Chase and Samberg's not.
"I'm not leaving SNL any time soon," says Samberg with a goofy Grand Canyon grin, referring to Chase's hasty exit once Hollywood beckoned.
The 28-year-old California native is slouched across a sofa in a Toronto hotel. "Gotta stretch out my stems," he says, his arms and legs hanging like licorice.
Sporting a moppish tangle of bedhead and dark glasses, Samberg looks a bit like a young Woody Allen. And a bit like the Swedish Chef. No surprise he refers to himself and his slacker pals as the Muppet Generation.
And he uses the word "super" a lot. His Hot Rod love interest, Isla Fisher, is super-pretty. He's super-juiced-off to have Sissy Spacek playing his mom. (I think that's a good thing.) Deadwood star Ian McShane, who plays his stepdad, is super-badass. And getting to make a movie with his high school pals director Akiva Schaffer and co-writer and co-star Jorma Taccone was super-fun. Basically, Samberg comes across as a super-nice guy.
He plays Rod Kimble, a fake-'stache-sporting, moped-riding wannabe Evel Knievel who can never live up to his Neanderthal stepdad's expectations of what it means to be a man.
"Rod is kind of a blindly optimistic idiot who means well," says Samberg. "He desperately wants to be extraordinary, when in fact he's pretty ordinary."
Hot Rod is full of scenes of Samberg's Kimble being hurled at high speeds into immovable objects, lit on fire, blown up and drowned. "It's ironic - growing up, all my friends were super-sick skaters, but I was terrible at anything with wheels," he says.
The film fits squarely into the fake heartwarming sports movie subgenre that also includes Dodgeball, Talladega Nights and Blades Of Glory, the latter two starring Will Ferrell, for whom Hot Rod was originally written.
Samberg took the unlikeliest route to SNL stardom. A struggling stand-up comic and actor, Samberg and his high school buddies Schaffer and Taccone began making silly short films for their website, Lonely Island.
After attracting some network attention, they were hired to make a pilot, the sketch series Awesometown, which landed them a gig writing for the MTV Movie Awards, hosted by SNL's Jimmy Fallon, who recommended them to SNL overlord Lorne Michaels.
"I didn't have a lot of live sketch experience, didn't have a lot of characters and impressions," says Samberg. "But we got hired because we had a writing packet and they liked my audition. It was a three-in-one deal for them."
That first season, he and Chris Parnell starred in Lazy Sunday, the Internet sensation that revitalized SNL, making the show - or at least YouTube clips of the show - required viewing for many who found SNL about as hip as the Smothers Brothers.
More videos followed: Natalie Portman rapping; a homoerotic heavy-metal love song about Samberg's brother-in-law.
Then, almost a year to the day after Lazy Sunday, lightning struck again with Dick In A Box, a Bel Biv Devoe-style Kwanzaa-referencing R&B duet with Timberlake about giving their girlfriends a Christmas present with their junk stuffed inside.
In the days after it aired, Dick found its way into more in-boxes than penis enlargement spam and earned Samberg and Timberlake an Emmy nomination for original music and lyrics.
Ten million downloads later, Samberg was doing a Dick duet with Timberlake in front of 18,000 screaming fans at Madison Square Garden. "And they were singing along with us," Samberg says, giggling.
At that point, making a movie with the Lonely Island trio was a no-brainer. Samberg feels the time has come to celebrate the stuntmen, the Evel Knievels and Super Daves and Colt Seavers of the world.
"The stuntman is being replaced by magicians - you know, that kind of celebrity," he says, completely seriously. "It's not Evel Knievel jumping stuff any more. It's David Blaine sitting in water for hours. What's cool about that?"
Additional Interview Audio Clips
On being given a feature film script
On making the leap from SNL to the big screen
On Lazy Sunday
On riding the SNL rollercoaster
On being being busted by Kiefer Sutherland
On being part of SNL
On being funny on a weekly deadline
HOT ROD (Akiva Schaffer) Rating: NNNN
This stupid stuntman comedy dares to ask serious questions. What would you sacrifice to save a loved one? How far can you jump on a moped? And what's the name of that song about Grandma getting run over by a reindeer? Or maybe it's a serious stuntman comedy that asks stupid questions. Either way, half the time it's absurdly, gloriously funny (the punch-dancing homage to Footloose, for example). The other half falls on its Tom Selleck-moustached face about as often as amateur daredevil Rod Kimble (Andy Samberg) and with the same degree of reckless abandon, which is worthy of appreciation if not laughter. But by the time Rod tries to jump 15 school buses to raise 50 K for his abusive stepdad's heart transplant so Rod can then kick his ass (don't ask), you'll be smiling as goofily as star Samberg.