Hot Rod will inevitably be compared with the films of Will Ferrell's Idiot Athlete phase. Ferrell would have been right at home in the story of Rod Kimble, a live-at-home man-child who tries to pull off a death-defying motorcycle stunt to raise money to save his ailing, abusive stepfather—just so that he can kick the old guy's ass fair and square. In fact when Pam Brady (Team America: World Police) wrote Hot Rod, she envisioned Ferrell as the star. But when Ferrell dropped out, the role went to another Saturday Night Live player, Andy Samberg. To his credit the 28-year-old comic gives a performance that's the opposite of what we've come to expect from Ferrell. And it works.
Ferrell plays his athletes ( NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights, figure skater Chazz in Blades of Glory) much in the same way he played George W. Bush on SNL: blissfully lacking in self-awareness. They may not know how they got to the top, but they're happy to be there. Kimble, in contrast, can't help but accept that he's no Evel Knievel. Wearing a fake mustache and an outfit his mom made, he tries every stunt in the book—jumping over RVs and public pools—but can't land any of them.
The funniest scenes in Brady's script—which was punched up by Samberg and the two pals with whom he created the Emmy-nominated SNL sketch "D--k in a Box"—make light of Kimble's girly sensitivity, such as when he bawls upon learning that his real dad wasn't actually Knievel's assistant. Or when he cries after another butt-kicking from his stepdad (Ian McShane). Or when he storms off to his forest sanctuary and "punch-dances" away his worries, a la Kevin Bacon in Footloose.
You'd never catch Ricky Bobby doing that. But as sports fans know, it's often easier—and more fun—to love the losers.