[21 May 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
When Not Ready for Prime Time Players Dan Aykroyd and the late John Belushi decided to turn their love of blues into a running performance piece musical spot on Saturday Night Live, no one could have predicted that the long running sketch comedy showcase would end up spawning several hit or miss cinematic efforts. But in 1990, producer Lorne Michaels secured a first look deal from Paramount, and from that point on, every possible popular bit from the program was seen as big screen fodder. From fan favorite Wayne’s World to cinematic abominations like It’s Pat and A Night at the Roxbury there was a belief that SNL was a hotbed of possibilities just waiting to be exploited.
However, after the less than successful returns of Superstar in 1999 and The Ladies Man in 2000, studio suits placed a moratorium on said small screen ideas. After all, without a major commercial value, there were seen as self-indulgent and unnecessary. Now, a decade later, comes the rebirth of the category with MacGruber. Based on the famed ABC action adventure series MacGyver and turning its non-violent secret agent who can find an out in everyday objects into the most accidental of heroes, it hopefully signals a comeback for SNL based burlesque. The results here definitely signify the potential for a rib-tickling renaissance.
When noted international terrorist Dieter Von Cunth hijacks a rogue Russian nuclear bomb, the United States government has no choice but to call in their best covert ops agent, MacGruber. So Col. Jim Faith travels to South America, where the highly decorated hero is hiding out. Trying to find some tranquility and forget his past, MacGruber at first wants no part of the problem. But when he learns it is Cunth behind the crime, he cannot resist reentering the game. You see, the villain was responsible for the death of MacGruber’s wife, and our champion wants payback in the worst way. Teaming up with passionate Pentagon rookie Lt. Dixon Piper and groovy gal pal Vicki St. Elmo, he devises a plot to infiltrate Cunth’s inner circle, locate the missile, and save America in the process. As usual with MacGruber, things don’t go quite as planned (not that there WAS a plan to begin with).
With its reliance on almost every facet of the comedy handbook (and a few farcical tactics all its own), MacGruber manages the almost impossible task of not only becoming one of the rare Saturday Night Live skits to make the successful transition to the big screen, but to also stand on its own as a classic crude comedy. It does both brilliantly. Even those unfamiliar with the Richard Dean Anderson series being spoofed, or the frequent SNL appearances of the character will enjoy this wonderful riff on the ‘80s action film. It is a perfect parody? Not hardly. The script is too in love with naughty language and crude comic names to be 100% effective. There are also bits that lag, sequences which fail to payoff in the way the actors or the dialogue intend.
Still, any film that can get Val Kilmer to mimic John Travolta (or even better, mock his own Real Genius persona of nearly three decades ago) can’t be all bad, and for what works, MacGruber is great. The opening montage where our lead has to round up his old gang of beefy, buff assistants is excellent, each acquisition adding another layer of understanding - and laughs - to the set-up. What happens next is equally effective, even though it’s as predictable as much of MacGruber‘s punchlines. Even better, Kristen Wiig takes her mousy minx quality and channels it into something superbly surreal. We are not quite sure why Vicki is part of the team. While she is capable in a pinch, her true technical talents remain more or less unknown. Yet with every line reading, every attempt at matching the other’s feigned machismo, Wiig wins.
For his part, Forte is an enigma. Part of the time, he plays MacGruber like a cocky second cousin to John Rambo and James Braddock. At other times, he’s a perfect pale comparison of Patty and Selma Bouvier’s favorite TV good guy. But there are also instances when he drops the bravado and turns amusingly moronic, saying and doing things that seem antithetical to our initial understanding of who MacGruber is supposed to be. In many ways, Forte’s performance is like that of an old vaudevillian. He recognizes the super short attention span of his core audience and never once lets his gonzo spirit sag. He will do anything for a laugh (clearly part of a post-post modern trend) and relies on his castmates to support even the stupidest idea.
That being said, it is up to TV talent turned first time feature film helmer Jorma Taccone to keep things in check, and for the most part, he does. He understands the beats of old school action film and peppers his backdrops with a wide variety of recognizable ‘80s music. Sure, sometimes his timing is off, especially when MacGruber is having a rapid fire verbal showdown with an opponent, and he doesn’t do enough visually to remind us of the Greed Decade excesses of the genre. But just keeping a proper balance between Forte’s fearlessness, Wiig’s wacked out whimsy, and the straight man stresses of Powers Booth (as Faith) and Ryan Phillipe (as new guy Piper), he does a more than competent job.
Besides, you’ll be laughing so much that it really won’t matter. You will definitely feel embarrassed every time you giggle at Kilmer’s recast “C” word surname, but it takes a special kind of silliness to make said curse work each and every time - and MacGruber has that. In fact, almost all the juvenilia and scatology, all the toilet humor and sexual slapstick, becomes part of this movie’s maniacal world. We expect characters, including those in command, to lace their explanations with random F-bombs. We know that when Vicki St. Elmo is confronted by a baddie, she will passively panic and say something odd. Even when our hero hops around in the nude with a certain leafy vegetable hanging out of his…area, we recognize the intelligent attempt at being idiotic. Indeed, MacGruber is a movie that knows it’s dumb because it’s so smart. If you can understand that, you’ll have a wonderful time with this brainless beauty.