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August 1-7, 2007

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'Hot Rod'

Photograph by James Dittiger
Wheelie enough and time: Andy Samberg plays Rod Kimble, a small-time stunt driver with big-time dreams, in 'Hot Rod.'

The Idiots

Two new comedies—'Hot Rod' and 'The Ten'—go lowbrow with high style

By Richard von Busack

WE NEED a new word to differentiate the stupidity of mainstream comedy and the non sequitur–laden stupidity of more flexible comedy. The Ten and Hot Rod, which open this weekend, are both excitingly stupid, with bracing slapstick fading into more intellectual jokes. The two films are linked to current sketch comedy. The Ten consists of 10 short films wrapped into a feature directed by David Wain of the comedy group Stella. Akiva Schaffer's Hot Rod stars his fellow ex-UCSC grad Andy Samberg, a fellow member (with Jorma Taccone) of the Lonely Island; this trio of writer/actors was responsible for the videos "Dick in a Box" and "Lazy Sunday."

The question of whether "Lazy Sunday" made YouTube or YouTube made "Lazy Sunday" may not be easy to unwind. Still, the plot of Hot Rod provides the first use of YouTube-style downloading as a method to save the day for hero Rod (Samberg) and his brother, Kevin (Taccone).

Instances in Hot Rod have the satisfying kinetic action of a Three Stooges short. Nick Powell, who coordinated the stunts on Gladiator, works out some of the best-realized low-tech slapstick in a long while. Rod dreams of becoming the Evel Knievel of his Podunk Pacific Northwest town; he ramp-jumps his Moped and burns rubber.

What could have been the feature film version of Jackass is given Freudian underpinning. Rod wants to beat his stepfather, Frank (demigod of wrath Ian McShane, the boss of Deadwood), who has been regularly attacking the kid in hopes of manning him up. The stepdad sickens, and needs $50,000 for what even the film's script calls "a conveniently priced heart transplant." As a charity benefit to make sure Frank doesn't die before Rod can thrash him, the daredevil stages his greatest stunt: a Moped jump over 15 school buses.

This ingratiating dweeb opera comes with all the 1980s trimmings: plenty of punch-dancing, samurai bandanas and the direst soundtrack of the year, a retrieved suite of 10 songs from the band Europe. The clothing is one long 1980s dumpster dive. In paraphrasing the flag-waving, eye-of-the-tiger sports-hero movie of the 1980s, Hot Rod almost becomes as stupid as what it's satirizing. Wasn't there, for instance, a way to include the female character (Isla Fisher) in more of the fun?

Originated as a Will Ferrell vehicle, and executive-produced by him, Hot Rod is something completely different. Ferrell's success has made him a bit of a ham, a reiterator. Samberg's youth and goofiness make a more perfect subject for this kind of punishment. It's strange how flexible Hot Rod is compared to the extremely similar Eagle vs. Shark, similar even unto the totem animals.

The Ten is even more flexible: an idiot's version of Kieslowski's The Decalogue, a series of 10 sketches on the Ten Commandments. One character claims that he's dating Dianne Wiest and boasts of the royalty checks she gets: "They should call it Hannah and Her Dollars! I mean, thanks, Woody." Thanks Woody, indeed; The Ten is maybe the funniest blackout film since Allen's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex. Like Everything, it has a perverted romance as its lynchpin. From Gene Wilder's torrid affair with a sheep, we migrated to Winona Ryder showing us how good an actress she is—how good she always was—by being hotly, uncontrollably enamored of a ventriloquist dummy.

The commandments are dealt with one by one. A man embedded in the ground after a parachuting accident, who'll die if he's moved, becomes a false god thanks to the media. To teach us not to take the Lord's name in vain, a librarian (Gretchen Mol) goes to Mexico and romances Jesus Christ (Justin Theroux) himself.

Here, as in Hot Rod, the emphasis is not on stars but on the comedy of a group effort. The Ten has its own sharp supporting work by Liev Schreiber as a grim cop, Jessica Alba as an infantile bimbo and Oliver Platt as Arnold Schwarzenegger. It also traffics in lower humor than Hot Rod. The Ten's "coveting the neighbor's wife" bit is a Lifetime Channel soap opera between prison lifers who can't quit each other. This well-played gag is capped with some prison-rape jokes, the worst part of The Ten. Humor is best when aimed at the powerful, not the wretched. And there aren't nearly enough liberals caring about suffering in prison to excuse this end of humor as a joke on liberal sensitivity, either.

Both films show comedy that's lowbrow but not as dumb as it looks. We deserve a flexible comedy in which slapstick meets scintillatingly stupid conceptual humor—such as Hot Rod's philosophical question about who would win a fight between a taco and a grilled-cheese sandwich. Instead we get mainstream stupid humor, as evidenced by I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, where a greasy message of brotherhood is overwhelmed by Adam Sandler's inflexibility—he doesn't want to roll with the punches, he wants to deal them out.

Movie Times Hot Rod (PG-13; 88 min.), directed by Akiva Schaffer, written by Pam Brady, photographed by Andrew Dunn and starring Andy Samberg, opens Aug. 3 valleywide. The Ten (R; 93 min.), directed by David Wain, written by Wain and Ken Marino, photographed by Yaron Orbach and starring Jessica Alba, opens Aug. 3 valleywide.

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