Status: In theaters (opened 5/21/10)
Directed By: Jorma Taccone
Written By: Will Forte & John Solomon & Jorma Taccone
Cinematographer: Brandon Trost
Starring: Will Forte, Kristen Wiig, Ryan Phillippe, Val Kilmer, Powers Boothe
Save for the occasional viral Internet video, I haven’t really watched Saturday Night Live in at least 10 years. Sometimes this makes me feel like I’m becoming a bitter, humorless old man, but the fact of the matter is that there’s not much there that I find particularly entertaining or amusing. The “MacGruber” sketches are a pretty exemplary instance of what it seems to me the show has become: it’s based on the thinnest of ideas (a spoof of the 1980s TV show MacGuyver), and stretches out its single-joke premise for agonizing lengths. The movie version of MacGruber is much the same. The skit’s original inspiration—lampooning MacGuyver—is all but forgotten here, and the film is simply yet another in the increasingly long line of mindless, slapstick comedies as a result.
It plays much like an episode of SNL: a joke—usually not a very well-conceived one in the first place—is set up, then paid off, and then milked repeatedly for 5-10 minutes. Then repeat. Do this 8-10 times, call it a feature film, and cash your paycheck.
The main differentiator here is that MacGruber was written to be an R-rated movie, and it basks in that fact. It feels like a lot of pent-up frustration over the standards (and censorship) of broadcast television finally set free, probably because that’s exactly what it is. MacGruber is vulgar just for the sake of being vulgar, and yes, sometimes this is pretty damn funny, but it also gets old really quick. MacGruber (Will Forte) has an arch-nemesis, played by Val Kilmer in one of those interestingly off-the-beaten-path roles that he’s been attracted to in recent years. This bad guy’s name is Cunth, and the script is happy to show that he’s named as such just for the half-assed jokes it can plumb by pretending that the trailing h isn’t there (including a go-to phrase, repeated way too many times, that invokes memories of one of The Heartbreak Kid‘s most un-funny gags).
Most of the jokes in this movie also fall into the “trying too hard” category. There’s a bit involving celery that exemplifies what I mean, but I don’t want to ruin the joke just in case you might find it funnier than I did. But suffice it to say, I found the initial joke not funny in the first place, and then the movie tries to ram it home with a cheap follow-up (the same type of writing I mentioned disliking in the first paragraph of my Year One review). There are exceptions, humorous moments that are well-set-up and then paid off, but if you’ve seen the film’s trailer you already know what they are. (This is a cliched one-line review of comedies that comes up so often that I try to avoid it, but it holds quite true here, unfortunately.)
The plot is generically wacky, involving Kilmer’s character’s plans to blow something up with a stolen missile, and MacGruber and his team—a love interest played by Kristen Wiig, and a wet-behind-the-ears sidekick played by Ryan Phillippe—bumbling their way towards stopping him. Powers Boothe is amusing as the stoic general who pops up occasionally to show how to play a comedic role without resorting to slapstick. (Actually, everybody except Forte seems to know this, but he’s the one with the most screen time, and so the whole movie feels more scewball than it should be.)
There are but a few aspects of MacGruber that I found genuinely funny, and they’re all repeated at least two or three times, significantly decreasing the value of the jokes with each iteration. The sex scene had me laughing out loud, as did the explosion “sound effects” that were used during the movie’s coda. But like the rest of the film, both gags are employed multiple times; the first time, you might laugh, but the second it’s like watching a re-run of a sitcom that was just on in the preceding time slot. This is, of course, due to the fact that like most movies of its ilk, MacGruber isn’t really enough of an idea for a feature-length film—and honestly I never really thought it was enough of an idea to carry a 5-minute sketch, for that matter. The net result is that I found myself sitting in the theater having the same thoughts I usually have when I happen to catch an SNL episode as of late: who thought this was all that funny in the first place, and are these people around me laughing because they actually find it amusing, or just because they recognize the cues telling them they’re supposed to?