A full-length film version of a recurring Saturday Night Live sketch may seem anachronistic these days; after all, it seemed the SNL movie finally died out way back in 1999/2000 with the one-two TKO of SUPERSTAR and THE LADIES MAN. The problems were obvious: even a talented cast and crew can rarely stretch out a three or four minute skit that hinged on the personality of the performer as he or she ran through the same joke again and again. I can think of only two times it did - THE BLUES BROTHERS and WAYNE'S WORLD. These films worked because their subject matter allowed for a larger story to unfold.
Lorne Michael's subsequent production efforts have taken the smarter tack. They build new stories around established talents, with the result that we go into the film with familiarity, to be sure, but also a sense of fun and surprise at what our favorite comedians might cook up. Tina Fey has really taken the ball and run with it in her backstage-at- SNL-show "30 Rock", realizing that after a while, all comedy sketches seem the same and the audience wants a different perspective. Meanwhile MACGRUBER co-writer and director Jorma Taccone, Andy Samberg and Akiva Goldsman (together The Lonely Island), have become the most popular act on SNL by largely ignoring its conventions and doing what they want. Samberg's on-air sketches are mostly forgettable, but he shines in LI's genre-skewing short videos.
Taccone and company know how to tap cultural cliche like no one else working today. They represent a new type of humor at work in American comedy - one that lovingly wallows in cultural familiarity and the ironic potential therein. In an age of YouTube and instant dissemination of, well, everything, they know that the best way to reach the widest audience at a level that truly connects is through their pop umbilical cords.
Will Forte's "MacGruber" sketches follow an identical formula: MacGruber, a hyper skilled MacGyver parody (we learn in the opening of the film that he has something like 16 Purple Hearts and four Medals of Honor, and has somehow served multiple tours of duty as a member of every branch of the armed forces) is trapped in a control room of some bad guy's lair with his assistant, Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig) and a third person played by that week's guest star. Plus a bomb with a 20 second timer. MacGruber sets to work using household items to defuse the bomb, but invariably becomes distracted, largely due to his own hubris and general cluelessness, and the bomb explodes. Forte and Taccone wisely dispense with this template until very late in the game, instead constructing a plot in which MacGruber is free to run wild. Thus: rich evil guy Dieter Von Cunth (Kilmer, having a ball) steals a nuclear missile which he intends to use on Washington, D.C. His motives are unimportant. What is important is that there's only one guy who can stop him: MacGruber. In an opening scene recalling RAMBO III (tellingly, the stupidest one), MacGruber's former commanding officer (Powers Boothe) tracks down the titular hero at a monastery in Ecuador, where he's spent the last ten years in seclusion following the death of his bride at the altar. She was blown up by Cunth. It was messy. It takes some convincing, and a team-assembling montage gone horribly, horribly wrong, but pretty soon MacGruber's back in action and taking the fight to the enemy.
Support is provided by Kristen Wiig as Vicki St. Elmo, a woman as strangely trapped in 1989-era style as MacGruber, as well as Ryan Phillippe as Lt. Dixon Piper, who actually seems to know what he's doing, if he can ever get through to MacGruber, whose home-made tactics not only generally fail to work, but often make things worse. Phillippe, Booth, and even Kilmer stand in for the audience as straight men, scratching their heads at MacGruber's insanity. Taccone and Forte give them lines that echo almost exactly what the average audience member might be thinking when MacGruber distracts some baddies by stripping down and utilizing a piece of celery in an interesting way. And yet it works. It makes sense. What's surprising is the rawness of the film: freed from the limitations of live network television, Taccone and Forte work to earn their R-rating. Boy, do they. MacGruber is a foul-mouthed near-deviant whose dedication to his country is matched only by his penchant for public nudity.
Forte is a dynamo on screen, showing that he, like Will Ferrell and others before him, will do absolutely anything to get a laugh, no matter how potentially embarrassing. While some of these gags might push the bounds of taste MacGruber has a thing for "throat rips" and the less said about his methods in the bedroom, the better Forte's exuberance for the character shines through. It's this commitment to the bit that helps MACGRUBER immensely. It's all absurd, parodic, and ultimately pointless, but it's a very entertaining 90 minutes. Taccone and Forte have great fun messing with the conventions of action movies in general and "MacGyver" in particular, though I doubt MacGyver ever offered to fellate a man to accomplish the mission. The film looks and sounds fine, and Taccone has made a smooth transition from short form music video parodies to action cinema; he's still got some things to learn, but he's definitely got chops. The best thing that can be said of MACGRUBER is that in the end, the intelligence and cleverness of its creators situate this film happily much closer to the work of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg than to the Butabi Brothers.
Let's hope this is the next step in a journey back for Lorne Michaels to producing quality comedy. Somewhere, John Belushi is smiling.