September 21, 2010

Kristen Wiig Ryan Phillippe MacGruber slice

When it was first announced, MacGruber seemed like the most dubious Saturday Night Live movie since It’s Pat!. Unlike previous films based upon the late night sketch show’s characters, MacGruber could not even carry five minutes of screen time. Instead, it managed only one to two, always punctuated by the exact same Aeon Flux-esque closing gag in which all of the protagonists meet an untimely end.

Expectations rose when Lonely Island member Jorma Taccone was placed in the director’s chair backed by the legitimate A-list talents of Ryan Phillipe and Val Kilmer. Suddenly, what had once sounded like the single worst idea for a movie in a great many years had a chance to be the next Wayne’s World, or at least the next Night at the Roxbury.

Is it? No. Not really. But it is very funny. Sometimes. More after the jump:

In many ways MacGruber is the slacker cousin of Quentin Tarantino’s retro-opuses, taking the style and aesthetics of various cultural references and low-culture influences and remixing them into something new and perverse. But, unlike Tarantino’s oeuvre, or even Robert Rodriguez’s best moments, MacGruber simply cannot bare the weight of it’s own pop cultural mobius strip.

The film takes itself seriously on a cinematic level. It has a real look and aims to visually emulate the style and palette of a late 1980’s action extravaganza. The opening moments could easily be the intro to a Chuck Norris Cannon film like The Octagon. Too, the script is unusually ambitious for a spoof, building a semi-coherent narrative around the grosser-than-gross gags and asking the audience to buy in to a few moments of real action.

The key joke is that it’s as if Tony Scott made a movie with all of the tech experts and deadly assassins replaced by complete idiots. And to this end, the film is somewhat successful. Credit where it is due, Toccone, is a talented director. Though the film only cost 10 million to make, it looks like it could have easily cost twice as much, even excluding the cast. The fact that it actually looks and feels like a cheesy action flick adds a great deal to what otherwise might have been a slog. Keeping pace with the visuals is a script full of sharp satirical gags that often cut to the heart of everything wonderfully stupid about the action genre. The problem is, the point of making a parody of Commando style films in 2010 is never fully explained.

Making jokes about utterly outmoded pop culture is old hat for The Lonely Island. The pilot for their aborted variety show, Awesometown! contained several segments dedicated wholly to spoofing Enemy Mine with absolutely no modern cultural antecedent. And I suppose that there doesn’t really need to be a reason. But at the same time, taking the piss out of something that no one takes seriously feels a bit confused.

Still, If one can make it past the ungainly premise of an SNL spoof of MacGyver by way of Arnold Schwarzenegger, there is fun to be had. The humor is some of the most ribald and grotesque in modern memory and I laughed, and laughed hard, at a good number of jokes. The first hour ticks along with a furious intensity that plays even more strongly upon repeat viewings. However, in the film’s final third things get bogged down and the laughs become more sporadic as the plot begins to take itself seriously.

Because Taccone went to the effort of making this movie feel like a “real” movie it could have sustained a less hysterical third act, if only there were anyone to care about. SNL alum Will Ferrell is the modern master of this approach. For all the incredible stupidity of his characters, Ferrell is  also an honest to God actor. There is a legitimate and strangely moving sadness at the core of Ron Burgundy, Ricky Bobby, and especially Frank the Tank. I can’t explain why, but at different points in these Ferrell vehicles I found myself at least somewhat engaged emotionally. In contrast, Will Forte’s broader than broad approach leaves no room for this and so I could not be less concerned if he made it out alive, saved the day or got the girl.

MacGruber is a wholly unlikable character. On one level this is admirable. It takes guts to make a movie where the protagonist is the most loathsome element. And with a different actor in the lead, perhaps it could have worked. But Forte is simply not up to the task. He is all wide-eyed wonder and unchecked Ego combined with an unrestrained Id. He gives it his all, but there is nothing even remotely human to be found here and so the farce grows tired.

If the filmmakers had stuck to their guns and perhaps gone with a Dr. Strangelove inspired ending (which also would have been more fitting of the sketch) I might be more forgiving. But as the film stands, this is a parody of something that is already a joke and it has absolutely nothing to say about the human condition. Consequently, though it is very funny, the whole remains less than the sum of its parts.


But boy, what parts. Individual scenes left me gasping for air. The film is often incredibly black hearted, featuring scores of murders played for laughs, brutal throat rippings, perhaps the best abortion joke I have ever heard, and an over the top final fight where a previous castration somehow becomes a point of pride. When the jokes hit, they really hit. And, because the filmmakers come from an improv background, a huge number of the jokes become runners, coming back into play three, four, or a dozen times. This is a style that rewards multiple viewings. As part of my reviewing duties I watched both the theatrical cut and the director’s cut. The film is actually funnier the second time. And in spite of the fact that I didn’t actually like the movie per se, I think I might end up revisiting it with friends over drinks, probably more than once.


As is the case with so many DVDs for films that underwhelmed at the box office, MacGruber feels like a disc that was left unfinished when the opening weekend receipts came in.

The disc contains both the rated and unrated cuts of the movie. In a rare occurrence, the unrated cut is actually better than the theatrical incarnation. There is only a three or four-minute difference, but all of the new bits made me laugh and none of them dragged the movie down. One of the new scenes even contains Kilmer’s best line.

The disc also contains a commentary from Taccone, Forte, and co-writer John Solomon. Disappointingly, the track is rather dry. The gang plays a MacGruber drinking game that ruins any chance of actual insight and then proceeds to be not very funny. There are a few good bits wherein they mock the movie’s financial failure and Forte comments that is mother is, “Real tight with blowjobs” but overall, it’s about as much fun as watching The Ladies Man.

Fairing better is the gag reel, which is made up primarily of alternate takes and lines. I laughed at a good number of them.

Finally, the disc has a single deleted scene that contains only one joke. Movies like MacGruber can usually be expected to contain lots of extra scenes, especially when the commentary track mentions several sequences that lost entire pages of dialogue in editing. I suppose that most of what would have been in the deleted scenes section made it back to the unrated cut, but I still would have liked a bit more.


MacGruber is not a perfect film. In fact, it is nearly fatally flawed on conceptual level. But it is also an introduction to a talented young filmmaker in Taccone, and a showcase for a variety of sometimes excruciatingly funny R-rated gags. The film drags and is ultimately less funny as a whole than some of the scenes are on their own, but it has a high rewatch quotient thanks to a number of running gags and tiny details.

The Film: 6.5 (though it does seem to grow on you with multiple viewings)

The DVD: 3.1

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