That was my first thought when I heard the SNL sketch was being made into a full-length movie. How could MacGruber, a 30 second sketch where the protagonist dies every time, possibly be stretched into a feature?
Never seen the sketch? Here’s the drill: Will Forte and Kristen Wiig are locked in a control room with the Host of the Week and a bomb. MacGruber (Forte), master of invention, has 30 seconds to defuse the bomb, but through some self-absorbed distraction never manages to maintain focus on the task at hand. The bomb goes off and everyone dies. The end. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Again, how on Earth…?
The answer is simple: give up on satirizing MacGyver and take aim at the broad ridiculousness of 80s action movies in general. By doing so, the movie works quite well.
Don’t get me wrong, this is still an aggressively stupid film. But isn’t that appropriate when tackling an aggressively stupid genre? The primary target, Commando, is one of the dumbest movies ever made, action or otherwise. But it’s still enjoyable in its own way, and MacGruber is too.
The movie is directed by Jorma Taccone, a staff writer for SNL and founding member of The Lonely Island, along with Akiva Schaffer and of course, Andy Samberg. Schaffer was in the director’s chair for the gang’s first big screen adventure, 2007’s Hot Rod, and much of that movie’s weirdness made its way into MacGruber. MacGruber might not have its own “Cool Beans” moment, but much of the comedy here is just bizarre. And I like it like that.
Now, let me make this clear: this is not high art. There is a great deal of juvenile and revolting humour in this movie, and not all of it works. There were a few jokes that made me wince, and not in a good way. But the jokes that hit more than make up for the ones that don’t. Hell, as I write this I’m sitting here giggling like an idiot remembering some of the movie’s best bits.
MacGruber follows the Naked Gun principle of casting serious actors and having them play the material straight. Powers Boothe is especially funny as Col. Faith, the old school army-man who must track down our titular hero and re-enlist his services. MacGruber’s arch-rival Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer) is back, and only Mac can bring him down. They’ve met before, in absurdly over the top flashbacks, but this time, it’s personal.
For a movie based on a series of brief sketches, it’s surprisingly faithful to the source material. The trademark scene is the movie’s climax, but it gets the little details right as well. Before she left the show, Maya Rudolph was the woman in the room with MacGruber week after week. She was replaced by Wiig in subsequent seasons, but turns up in the film as MacGruber’s dead wife — the murdered lover who must be avenged.
While some of the movie’s jokes can be spotted from miles away, the biggest laughs come when the script takes our expectations of the genre and cleverly inverts them. Take the scene where MacGruber must explain why Cunth killed his wife. “To this day I have no idea…” is the beginning of a speech I won’t dare spoil, as it gave me the biggest laugh I’ve gotten out of any movie in quite a while. The movie is almost worth recommending solely for this scene.
Like the movie he’s carrying, Forte is uneven in the lead. At times you feel him trying too hard, but there are moments when his shameless overacting yields great results. His unhinged rage during the finale is hilarious, as is the conviction with which he drops lines like “I will suck your fucking dick.” It’s the kind of vulgarity that critics are trashing the film for, but Forte sells it so well that I don’t mind.
Wiig is much better. She annoys me on SNL, where she’s often saddled by bad writing and grating one-note characters with repetitive “quirks”. But on-screen, there’s something magnetic about her. She’s a consistent scene-stealer, in tiny roles like Knocked Up or Bored to Death, and in slightly more serious fare like Whip It. She’s one of the few cast members in recent years who seems like they’re being held back by the show. Bigger and brighter things await her should she choose to leave.
Ryan Phillippe is so wooden as MacGruber’s unlikely sidekick that I haven’t even mentioned him until now. For what the conventions of his character require of him, he fills the role well enough, but he doesn’t bring much to it. In terms of comedy he seems to exist only for the movie to have a straight-man to pan to for reaction shots after MacGruber does something nonsensical.
Kilmer is underwritten as the villain, but at least seems like he’s having fun with the material. His ridiculous performance in those aforementioned flashbacks is one of the movie’s best strengths.
Yes MacGruber is a silly and stupid film with a dirty mind and a filthy vocabulary. The movie has done quite poorly, both critically and at the box office, but I’m not sure what people were expecting from a movie called MacGruber. Is it intellectually stimulating? Not at all. But it’s oddly funny, and that’s all it aspires to be.
When it inevitably hits DVD, MacGruber will make a formidable second selection on an Action-Comedy double-bill next to something like Hot Fuzz or Pineapple Express, especially if you’re already a few beers deep. While clearly a cut below its peers, it’s a mindless comedy that made me laugh more than I care to admit. Sometimes, that’s all that matters.