The subgenre of films based on comedy sketches has been dormant for most of the past decade. MacGruber, based on a funny series of Saturday Night Live bits, doesn’t seem like the most obvious vehicle for revitalization (though anyone who watches SNL regularly could name plenty of even worse candidates). The sketches feature Will Forte as an improvising hero with the hairdo and (supposed) technical know-how of MacGyver, but none of his focus. We always join him in mid-crisis, about to diffuse a bomb, and after a series of distractions, each segment ends with MacGruber and his sidekicks blown to bits.
In expanding MacGruber’s haplessness to feature size, director Jorma Taccone, along with co-writers Forte and John Solomon, concentrates less on spoofing MacGyver and more on recasting MacGruber as an all-purpose ‘80s-style action hero, retrieved from Rambo III-style exile to take on Dieter von Cunth (Val Kilmer), a missile-wielding supervillain responsible for the death of MacGruber’s fiancée. Eighties revivalism, though, is hardly more promising on paper than SNL movies, having been covered with varying degrees of subtlety and skill by everything from The Wedding Singer to Pineapple Express.
MacGruber manages to avoid easy winks and pointless decade fetishism. Taccone is one third of the Lonely Island, the team behind SNL‘s Digital Shorts as well as the film Hot Rod, and clearly reveres the trash culture of his youth. In contrast with the sitcom style of so many comedies, Taccone’s looks like an actual feature film. The super-saturated colors and occasional blinding whites have a ‘90s Jerry Bruckheimer sheen, but the unimaginative locations and low-rent, high-stakes storyline (involving saving millions of lives, in a movie with about a dozen speaking parts) imitate the kind of chintzy rogue-hero action movie you might find on HBO at two in the morning—this version just happens to star Will Forte.
A peculiar and somewhat delightful comic actor, Forte shares with Will Ferrell an interest in men who valiantly resist noticing their own weaknesses, men who frequently indulge in discomforting nudity. Forte’s characters are even more troubled and insecure than Ferrell’s, and it’s quickly apparent that MacGruber’s problems aren’t exactly lack of ability (though his bravado renders him amusingly and regularly dense) so much as a desperate attachment to ass-kicking, day-saving, and throat-ripping.
The movie’s best gags offer a glimpse into MacGruber’s sad obsessions: he’s supremely attached to his car stereo and fantasizes about revenge for utterly minor offenses. He combines a character born of the “Me Decade” with a profane and self-centered child who can’t be bothered to stay incognito, trace calls, or make plans.
It helps that so much of MacGruber is played straight—or, as straight as possible in a movie where the hero’s diversion of choice involves the aforementioned nudity and a stalk of celery. MacGruber and his lady sidekick Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig) are the only true comic weirdos in the cast, and even Wiig gamely underplays. The rest of the roles are filled by performers like Kilmer, Ryan Phillipe, and Powers Boothe, all acting more or less as they would in a non-twisted version of this material.
The absence of Forte’s SNL buddies does have a downside. Without other comic characters, the movie doesn’t find the inspiration of, say, Anchorman, or even Hot Rod. MacGruber is a solo act, much like MacGruber is a lone wolf. Also like MacGruber, the movie is weirdly effective in the end. It gets the job done, with a soft-rock soundtrack.