In all his years in showbiz, with all the projects he has had to promote, Russell Crowe had not hosted SNL before last night. Maybe it’s because he’s a dramatic actor, maybe it’s because he takes himself too seriously or because he has a temper. For whatever reason, Crowe has finally taken the stage to get us all take note of his new action-comedy with Ryan Gosling, The Nice Guys.
The promos for the movie — and the SNL promos of Crowe at a bar with Leslie Jones, too — prove that Crowe does have timing and a sense of humor. Last night's show had the potential to let Crowe reveal some comedic chops he’s been hiding all along, but it ended up seeming more like a politician’s stop on a campaign trail, a chance for a serious guy to goof around — though never too much. Crowe has some affinity for the medium, and is willing to play a few unsavory characters, but he only appeared in five of the eleven segments on the show and didn’t make much of an impression in those. If you were looking to discover new depths to the Gladiator and Master and Commander star, you’re not going to find them here.
Cold Open: Hillary Addresses Her Losing Streak
This one aims right at New Yorkers, who watched the wounded Hillary do her best to appeal to locals on campaign stops in the city this week. While Clinton's inept pandering might be an easy target, this sketch hints at the whiff of desperation behind her confident declarations. Here, Hillary tries (and fails) to make everyone happy: She turns her brand-new Yankees cap around to reveal it’s also a Mets cap; she waves a hot dog in front of her lips, but can’t quite take a bite; she tells everyone she’s off to see the exciting Broadway show everyone’s talking about, “Chicago.” In one taped shot, McKinnon parodies Hillary’s ineptitude at the subway turnstile with a deft bit of physical comedy, and there are some great lines including, “I’m just like all of you: I never sleep, I’m in a hurry to get to work, and when I’m running, I really hate it when a slow old Jew gets in my way.” I wouldn’t watch Kate McKinnon’s Hillary read the phone book, but I’d consider the offer.
Naturally, Crowe takes to the stage to play on his image and show he’ll be a good sport. The gag: He tells everyone they know his from his career as a comedic actor, and uses clips from Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind and Les Mis to illustrate his point. It’s telling that the best joke is also the most puerile. In the clip of John Nash analyzing a cascade of data, he plucks out the digits “80085,” which, as every preteen boy who has ever handled a calculator knows, looks like “BOOBS.” No, there’s not much of a punch here but it’s over quickly. Interestingly, there are no jokes about throwing phones. Either that was too far in the past for the writers’ tastes or, more likely, Crowe said thanks-but-no-thanks-I’ve-changed-let’s-move-on-LET’S-MOVE-ON-GODDAMNIT.
Preparation H Ad
The twist on this ad for hemorrhoid cream is too fun to spoil. Stop reading, click on the link and take the two minutes — or, hey, if you’re on a time budget, watch 60 seconds and stop if the first joke doesn’t grab you. It involves mild-mannered Taran Killam, a man who has lost his socializing groove due to ass ache, and the cheery Beck Bennett as a kind-hearted stranger offering advice. One caveat: Your enjoyment may be contingent on your interest in phrases such as, “Your butt was on fire when we met” and “Creamin’ up.”
Politics Nation: Voter I.D. Laws Disaster
Not sure how the stars aligned, whether SNL petitioned Al Sharpton or the other way around, but this is a flaccid exercise seemingly designed only to give Sharpton a little air time. Kenan Thompson does his best amenable impression of the gravelly reverend until Sharpton shows up in the flesh as a “statistical analyst.” Thompson-Sharpton and Sharpton-Sharpton talk about the various candidates and their scores on the “Black Approval Ratings Scale,” as Kenan spits a few lame malapropisms (“Hillary Clinton is Raisinettes — er, raising awareness…”) Maybe this was meant to be a cold open, but just wasn’t good enough to make the cut?
Interactive Museum Exhibit
Oof. It’s a mystery why this sketch is so close to the top of the show, because it’s a mess not worth the attention. The part makes sense for Crowe, who gets to play blustery and brutish as a museum’s new, interactive hologram of King Henry VIII. Turns out, the hologram is all too real, capable of seeing and really talking to his observers — or, ooh, maybe it’s the real Henry VIII rupturing the space-time continuum? Coming up with theories is enjoyable, because it is not at all enjoyable watching ol’ Hank as he harangues female museum-goers, impotently grabbing at their boobs and demanding they bear him a son. In fact, about three quarters of this sketch is Crowe bellowing, “Bear me a son!” It’s only a lot more awful than it sounds.
It’s now clear that writers decided to spend a lot of time in the episode making Crowe into a creep of some sort. In this dating-game parody, all the standard flirty banter and sexual innuendo from two young contestants doesn't stand a chance against Crowe’s older German professor. Why beat around the bush when you can whisper seductively into it? When asked how he’d keep his bachelorette happy on a date, Crowe’s creep replies, “First, I would massage your labia majora and then I would mount a subtle but focused campaign on your clitoris.” The guy’s overt, clinical approach is shocking, and worth a couple of laughs. On a side note, Cecily Strong does great in the generally thankless job of vapid, plastic bachelorette.
Most jokes in the first chunk of Update look at the primaries as eyes turn toward the surprisingly important state of New York. Bernie and Hillary’s subway adventures get revisited, but the Ted Cruz material is much more fun. (Kudos to the graphics department for Cruz-as-Pizza-Rat.) Colin Jost jabs Cruz while asking him to stay away from NYC, and makes some incisive points along the way (“We don’t have values in New York. That’s why we moved to New York: To escape people with values, like you.”) Kate McKinnon returns as her “somebody’s mom,” character Deenie. Her charm is undeniable, the costume and wig are impeccable, the writing is really fun — all of the elements are there, but it’s not electric.
The second half is less inspired. Michael Che takes a nice jab at Bill Clinton’s dismissal of Black Lives Matter protestors. Bill was only defending Hillary, Che posits, and says that after what Hillary put up with, she should be allowed to “fistfight a black baby on BET,” and still have Bill defend her. Kyle Mooney comes back as stand-up Bruce Chandling — a character for whom I can’t imagine fans were clamoring. Mooney, God love him, exhibits his usual guileless and childlike zeal as he repeatedly tries to sell the audience on one hacky notion — i.e., girls don’t understand sports — but the bit falls flat. It’s nice Lorne gives Mooney this sort of air time, but Mooney sucks up much of it without really connecting.
100 Days in the Jungle
The idea here isn’t bad: Producers on a Survivor-like game show fly in loved ones to provide emotional support for their contestants — and one competitor, Nathan (resident babyface Pete Davidson), is gifted with presence of some tool his uncle knows. Russell Crowe plays Terry, a doofus with a gray flat top and camo pants who lived in a tent behind Nathan’s uncle’s house for a while. Crowe seems to enjoy hamming it up, but the script itself doesn’t deliver on Terry’s promise. Though if you’ve ever wanted to see Crowe “scarf a duck’s vagina,” this is your chance.
Two buddies of indeterminate age — either 17 or thirtysomething — get the gig of a lifetime: Working at kids’ funplex Pogie Pepperoni’s. This is the fantasy for any child who grew up near Chuck E. Cheese or Showbiz Pizza — or any room filled with greasy slices, games and animatronic animals. The two guys flip out at receiving uniforms, getting free tokens and meeting the guy who plays the titular mascot. Then the duo meets Pogie Pepperoni’s owner and shit gets real. The best thing the sketch has going for it: The sweetness Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney give to their over-the-top enthusiasms. It’s not amazing, but watching 5-year-olds refusing to high-five adults will always be a little funny.
Shanice Goodwin: Ninja
Write “Leslie Jones” and “ninja” on a Post-It, and you’ve already got something. (Hell, it might already be someone’s premise for a movie.) Of course, the gag here is that Jones is not physically what one might expect in a ninja. In order to decimate a roomful of Russian mobsters, she does cartwheels, hides behind a copy of the New York Post, noisily sets up a stepladder to jump from while her prey remains painfully oblivious. The timing is a little off, and there might be a little too much movement for Jones to own every moment to the fullest, but it’s got a joyful spirit. Russell Crowe plods through this one; the accent is what he seems to be focused on, and it’s sadly something other than Russian.
Oprah Winfrey: A Life of Love
This filmed sketch is companion piece to former writer-cast member Michael O’Brien’s “The Jay-Z Story,” which saw O’Brien as the titular rapper fighting his way out of Bed-Stuy and into hip-hop history. Naturally, this is O’Brien enacting the big moments of Oprah’s life, from winning Miss Black Tennessee to giving each person in her talk show audience a new car. Like “The Jay-Z Story,” its aspirational inappropriateness is endearing, and O’Brien’s unique comedy brain is always welcome. (After reenacting Oprah’s famous scene from The Color Purple, with Jason Sudeikis in the Whoopi Goldberg role, the two hug and say, “We’re still buds.”) Unfortunately, after Mooney’s Bruce Chandling and the Pogie Pepperoni sketch, the show is already full up with awkward white guys making things awkward and this one is one too many.
Given that Crowe is in less than half of the show, by the end of the night, his appearance feels less like a true hosting gig and more like a glorified justification to plug a movie. Sure, that may be the case more often than not, but this one feels even more transparent than others: He does what’s required, and doesn’t pop up in the digital shorts or Weekend Update. And in the sketches, he’s playful but not remarkable. The episode has moments of life, but its clunkers and failures bring it down.
Also: Hey, writers, can you please find something fun for Sasheer Zamata to do? Let’s not Ellen Cleghorne her, yeah? (And even Cleghorne had Queen Shenequa, so.)