Friday, July 8th, 2011

For Your Reconsideration: 'MacGruber'

The Saturday Night Live adaptation is one of the most maligned of all movie genres, and not without justification. Excepting Wayne’s World, it’s been a mostly fruitless enterprise. The 1990s churned out would-be film franchises like an assembly line, whether warranted or not, and these struggled to connect with viewers. Watching something like Coneheads, for instance, one can only be left with the question: Why, Coneheads, why? In any case, it didn’t take long for audiences to grow disenchanted with the string of one-note jokes built on shaky premises, and after a while Lorne Michaels stopped financing them. Any SNL movie made in the post-Ladies Man era, then, would have to do more to justify its existence than merely present its source material writ large. Luckily, this message was clearly not lost on Will Forte.

Forte and his SNL collaborators, John Solomon and Jorma Taccone, couldn’t have made MacGruber as a stretched-out version of what they’d done on the show even if they wanted to—the sketch was as bare bones as these things get. A parody of MacGyver, each installment consisted of a literally-down-to-the-wire bomb defusing scene, during which the resourceful hero proved fatally incompetent in a variety of amusing ways. A movie version could sustain neither 90 minutes of bomb-defusings nor a feature-length parody of MacGyver, which had been irrelevant even as a punchline for at least a couple decades. It needed to be something different.

The most frustrating part about MacGruber's failure is that the movie was indeed different from any other Saturday Night Live film, and easily better than any of them since Wayne’s World. Instead of getting as much mileage as possible from mocking just MacGyver, the writers set their satirical sights on the era from which that character was borne, and broadened their scope to include the totality of late-80s action movies. In doing so, they managed to find a landscape to explore which proved much richer than, say, the one that Rob Schneider’s Copy Guy character might have inhabited. (Let us all take a moment to praise the Lord that this is only a hypothetical example.)

Owing as much to testosterone-festivals like Patrick Swayze’s Road House as it does to more obvious touchstones like Rambo and Cobra, MacGruber is a pastiche of pure Reagan-era cheese. Forte, Taccome, and Solomon are clearly scholars of this milieu, and they nail its clichés every step of the way. Some of the hyperspecific details function as high satire without needing any jokey accompaniment. The opening scene, for instance, is a completely straight introduction to Val Kilmer’s eccentric villain that could have come directly from any of the movies it’s mocking. For that matter, the first 15 minutes or so also contains:

-A theme song featuring a choir and a sax solo
-A back story rendered through wonky exposition and dream sequences
-A military hero on self-imposed exile after faking his own death
-An unorthodox captain luring a reluctant hero back to active duty
-Said hero and his new partner physically butting heads
-Said hero screaming at the sky (on three separate occasions.)

MacGruber is hilarious not only for staying true to its inspiration in painstaking detail, but also for the choices the filmmakers made that deviate wildly from the template. Most of the time, MacGruber has a hero’s relaxed arrogance that OF COURSE everything is going to work out, but as soon as things start to go wrong, he breaks into hissy fits of desperate unbridled panic. Will Forte bravely throws himself into these scenes with a total lack of vanity, and it gets kind of uncomfortable. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in Commando, for instance, probably would never freak out and offer to fellate another man the moment his plans started to go awry. Admittedly though, MacGruber is not “a plan guy.”

The plot, in so far as there actually is one, is incidental. It’ll suffice to say that our hero is on a mission to bring down Dieter Van Cunth, who is trying to detonate nuclear warheads, and who is also responsible for killing the hero’s wife, etc, and so forth. Make no mistake, though, the fact that you’re watching a MacGruber movie at all is the plot — a chance to string together twisted Will Forte sketches and set pieces with a $10M budget. Considering how well this mission was accomplished, the movie should have been at least a minor hit. Unfortunately there were a lot of factors working against it.

MacGruber had the misfortune of being both overhyped and mis-marketed. Relativity Studios showed perhaps too much confidence in the movie by giving it an early summer release date of May 21, 2010, as counterprogramming to Iron Man 2 and Shrek 4. They also cut together previews that made the product look something like Friedberg & Seltzer’s Summer Action Movie. The only thing that MacGruber has in common with the summer fare it appeared to be sending up, though, is the inevitable explosions. If audiences could have somehow seen MacGruber dispatching a henchman with one of his trademark throat-rips and then pronouncing his own handiwork to be “classic MacGruber,” perhaps they’d have had a better idea of what the movie was about.

“I’m sure that’s a reason why some people didn’t go see it,” Will Forte told Movieline magazine this past May. “Not seeing how a sketch like that could be turned into a full-length movie, just assuming that it would be a series of explosions every three minutes. I wouldn’t want to see that movie and I don’t blame people for not wanting to see a movie like that.”

The reviews didn’t help much either. Although they were surprisingly favorable — compare MacGruber's 47% Rotten Tomatoes score with The Hangover Part II at 35% — many of them seemed to miss the point. More than one reviewer singled out the repetition of bad jokes in the movie as a sign of its lameness, seemingly failing to recognize that the repetition was the joke. MacGruber’s clear relish in delivering his line about taking out the villain (“let’s go pound some Cunth”) isn’t less funny the third time; it’s finally funny the third time — when it marks how twisted it is for movie heroes to say weird puns when talking about taking lives. In case we didn’t get that this is supposed to be a joke, the movie helpfully illustrates as much by having Ryan Phillipe’s quintessential straight man call out how often MacGruber uses that line. “It’s a really good line!” MacGruber says, defending himself. “I know good lines. I think them up and then I practice them in front of a mirror.”

Suggesting a hero who rehearses his catchphrases in front of a mirror is exactly the kind of trick that makes Forte and Taccone’s experiment a comedy breakthrough. Packed with 80s-signifiers like the hero’s Blaupunkt car CD player, clutch supporting performances from Kristen Wiig and Ryan Phillipe, and some surprises I don’t want to spoil (OMG, THE SEX SCENES), MacGruber is destined for a cult following it shockingly doesn’t seem to have yet — Halloween costumes and lines quoted so often you’re sick of them. Any fans of satire who haven’t checked out MacGruber yet, prepare to be converted into believers like the man himself when he finally uses a gun for the first time.

Joe Berkowitz edits books and writes stuff. He also has a Tumblr.

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  • D. Ray Morton@twitter

    Terrible, dreadful movie with about 4-5 jaw-dropping, unforgettably funny, did-he-just-go-there? scenes..but those comprise about 8 minutes. That still leaves another 75-80 minutes.

    • David Dodenhoff@facebook

      @D. Ray Morton@twitter Agreed: A wretchedly bad, unfunny movie about 95% of the time. It didn't deserve an audience, and it didn't find one. Makes perfect sense to me.

    • classaction

      @D. Ray Morton@twitter you probably didnt like this movie because you prefer worn out 30 rock bullshit, this movie is hilarious, eat a dick

    • 23abraxas

      Fuck you, MacGruber is awesome. You're a humorless cunt.

  • Jason Farr@facebook

    I loved seeing MacGruber, but there was *something* that was sort of missing that keeps me from putting it on the same level as, say, Superbad or Hot Rod. It's one where I say "I can't put my finger on what is missing," though I really liked what was there.
    What I find interesting is that Coneheads gets knocked so much these days. At the time it seemed like people, at worst, thought it was forgettable. Maybe MacGruber will have the opposite happen to it and 10 years from now people will like it a lot.

  • David Widmayer@twitter

    I couldn't agree with your post more, Joe. I'm almost relieved to hear someone finally agree with me about MacGruber. I was as dubious as anyone going in, and came away so pleasantly surprised.

  • TedSallis

    I was amused by this movie and yes I paid to see it in the theater! I just about died laughing at the part about McGruber's obsession with the guy who made a passing rude comment about his Miata and it's completely insane and overboard culmination was a wow, just wow, moment. Comedy writing at it's finest right there.

  • Joel Williams@twitter

    Dude, yes. Totally loved Macgruber. Didn't see it in the theatres, but caught it on HBO and it was hilarious. Even my girlfriend, who thought the trailers made it look awful, enjoyed it. Members of the "Walk Hard" cult would do well to check out this movie.

  • carson

    Loved Macgruber. I know comedies in this vain get a bad rap, but Macgruber was especially crucified. It's one of the funniest movies I've seen in years. The Brothers Solomon deserves a re-appraisal as well.

  • http://www.twitter.com/becca_oneal Rebecca O'Neal

    Gotta admit that I've only seen 2 or 3 scenes from MacGruber because it was on HBO in the background while I was getting dressed – but those scenes were pretty funny, for what it's worth.

    One was of Forte walking in to see Kristen Wiig and she was at a Casio singing a song that ended with a whispered and non-sequitur "…I love you." That was great.

    The other was a scene with MacGruber trying to convince Ryan Phillipe to do… something?… in an office and getting so desperate he offered to "suck [his] fucking dick". I nearly died laughing at that – no context needed. And it was PROBABLY because of that weird Will Forte cadence that just kills me, but I DVRed the movie on the strength of that scene alone.

    That was a few months ago and I still haven't gotten around to watching it.

    OH – and about SNL movie adaptations: growing up, Superstar was one of my absolute favorite movies. Can't say if it holds up because I haven't seen it in years, but I can still quote it from memory.

  • theBULL

    Really funny movie. It gets funnier the longer it's been since you've seen it and start thinking about it.

    The scene where Ryan Phillipe goes through MacGruber's notebook.

    The cafe scene with Wiig apparently screaming about nothing.

    And so many more. "Just point to something and I will f*ck it!"

  • http://twitter.com/joshung Joshua Ungerleider

    Definitely on the Pro-MacGruber team. I think I'd need to watch it again to be able to consider it a "cult hit" as opposed to just "a funny movie that didn't get its due." Forte's delivery makes the movie. When Cunth tells MacGruber that he accidentally killed his friends (mocking MacGruber), and MacGruber excitedly says "I totally did that too!" was one of my favorite scenes. Though on paper (or in my comment) it doesn't seem as funny.

    Coneheads, I thought, was not only one of the better SNL movies, but one of the better Dan Aykroyd movies from the mid-90s and later. Granted, neither one of those statements means its a good movie, but when its contemporariess are Night at the Roxbury, Blues Brothers 2000, and Celtic Pride, Coneheads seems like a masterpeice.

    • fredrostarr

      Night at the Roxbury and celtic pride are both classic movies

  • http://jonaspolsky.tumblr.com/ Jonas Polsky

    Correction, "Wayne's World" is funny, but "Blues Brothers" is a classic that transcends its SNL origins.

    • 23abraxas

      Blues Brothers pales in comparison to MacGruber.

  • http://www.mindofmiles.us/ Robert Wooley

    Granted SNL has had a some films which did extremely perfectly. Aided by the loves of the Blues Brothers and Wayne's World, but these are two movies that catered to the Audience of the era. With Belushi rocking out in order to Soul guy and Wayne plus Garth Head banging in order to Queen plus Ugly Kid Joe (Pretty fashionable at the time). These films because they did well were both made into sequels and all of the life, funny, and money were in turn sucked out of them. " It's Pat " grossed a embarrassing 60K at the Box Office. Earning not far more than which was "Stuart Saves His household". "Women male" and "Superstar" were just not funny. -Robert, lead writer mindofmiles.us

  • mikecharal

    I thought this movie was genius. No one could have played that character like Forte. The writing is great too, I found there were very few moments where I thought, "Aw, dumb joke."

    MacGruber's ABSOLUTE unwavering confidence in some scenes in contrast to his panicked breakdowns is TOO funny. When he walks in that club and calls everyone pieces of shit, spells his full name out and smashes the mic through a glass window I nearly died laughing. Justifying it to Piper by saying, "Don't worry, I have a plan, I kinda make it up as I go."

    I just love how unapologetic he is. One of my favourite moments in the movie:

    Piper: This cell phone's all we got.
    MacGruber: Well we better make the most of it, 'cuz at this point, this is our only connection to the X5.
    *cell phone rings*
    MacGruber: Holy SHIT it's RINGING, Vicky, call tracer!
    Piper: Now remember MacGruber, you gotta keep him on the line long enough to get a location.
    MacGruber: Don't worry, I've done this before.
    *answers cell phone*
    MacGruber: Listen to me you PIECE OF SHIT, Has and Zeke are dead and if you don't tell me who this is – he hung up. You get it?
    Vicky: No…
    MacGruber: DAMMIT is that thing WORKING?
    Vicky: Yeah, but you gotta keep 'em on the phone for at least 20 seconds!
    MacGruber: That was twenttyyy…
    Piper: That was mayyybe 3.
    MacGruber: SHIT you're right SHIT SHIT SHIT
    *phone rings again*
    MacGruber: HA HA, SECOND CHANCE, IN YOUR FAAACE – listen to me you PIECE OF SHIT, Has and Zeke are – it's my phone.

    That sequence right there is PERFECT.