The Saturday Night Live adaptation is one of the most maligned of all movie genres, and not without justification. Excepting Wayne’s World, it’s been a mostly fruitless enterprise. The 1990s churned out would-be film franchises like an assembly line, whether warranted or not, and these struggled to connect with viewers. Watching something like Coneheads, for instance, one can only be left with the question: Why, Coneheads, why? In any case, it didn’t take long for audiences to grow disenchanted with the string of one-note jokes built on shaky premises, and after a while Lorne Michaels stopped financing them. Any SNL movie made in the post-Ladies Man era, then, would have to do more to justify its existence than merely present its source material writ large. Luckily, this message was clearly not lost on Will Forte.
Forte and his SNL collaborators, John Solomon and Jorma Taccone, couldn’t have made MacGruber as a stretched-out version of what they’d done on the show even if they wanted to—the sketch was as bare bones as these things get. A parody of MacGyver, each installment consisted of a literally-down-to-the-wire bomb defusing scene, during which the resourceful hero proved fatally incompetent in a variety of amusing ways. A movie version could sustain neither 90 minutes of bomb-defusings nor a feature-length parody of MacGyver, which had been irrelevant even as a punchline for at least a couple decades. It needed to be something different.
The most frustrating part about MacGruber’s failure is that the movie was indeed different from any other Saturday Night Live film, and easily better than any of them since Wayne’s World. Instead of getting as much mileage as possible from mocking just MacGyver, the writers set their satirical sights on the era from which that character was borne, and broadened their scope to include the totality of late-80s action movies. In doing so, they managed to find a landscape to explore which proved much richer than, say, the one that Rob Schneider’s Copy Guy character might have inhabited. (Let us all take a moment to praise the Lord that this is only a hypothetical example.)
Owing as much to testosterone-festivals like Patrick Swayze’s Road House as it does to more obvious touchstones like Rambo and Cobra, MacGruber is a pastiche of pure Reagan-era cheese. Forte, Taccome, and Solomon are clearly scholars of this milieu, and they nail its clichés every step of the way. Some of the hyperspecific details function as high satire without needing any jokey accompaniment. The opening scene, for instance, is a completely straight introduction to Val Kilmer’s eccentric villain that could have come directly from any of the movies it’s mocking. For that matter, the first 15 minutes or so also contains:
-A theme song featuring a choir and a sax solo
-A back story rendered through wonky exposition and dream sequences
-A military hero on self-imposed exile after faking his own death
-An unorthodox captain luring a reluctant hero back to active duty
-Said hero and his new partner physically butting heads
-Said hero screaming at the sky (on three separate occasions.)
MacGruber is hilarious not only for staying true to its inspiration in painstaking detail, but also for the choices the filmmakers made that deviate wildly from the template. Most of the time, MacGruber has a hero’s relaxed arrogance that OF COURSE everything is going to work out, but as soon as things start to go wrong, he breaks into hissy fits of desperate unbridled panic. Will Forte bravely throws himself into these scenes with a total lack of vanity, and it gets kind of uncomfortable. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in Commando, for instance, probably would never freak out and offer to fellate another man the moment his plans started to go awry. Admittedly though, MacGruber is not “a plan guy.”
The plot, in so far as there actually is one, is incidental. It’ll suffice to say that our hero is on a mission to bring down Dieter Van Cunth, who is trying to detonate nuclear warheads, and who is also responsible for killing the hero’s wife, etc, and so forth. Make no mistake, though, the fact that you’re watching a MacGruber movie at all is the plot — a chance to string together twisted Will Forte sketches and set pieces with a $10M budget. Considering how well this mission was accomplished, the movie should have been at least a minor hit. Unfortunately there were a lot of factors working against it.
MacGruber had the misfortune of being both overhyped and mis-marketed. Relativity Studios showed perhaps too much confidence in the movie by giving it an early summer release date of May 21, 2010, as counterprogramming to Iron Man 2 and Shrek 4. They also cut together previews that made the product look something like Friedberg & Seltzer’s Summer Action Movie. The only thing that MacGruber has in common with the summer fare it appeared to be sending up, though, is the inevitable explosions. If audiences could have somehow seen MacGruber dispatching a henchman with one of his trademark throat-rips and then pronouncing his own handiwork to be “classic MacGruber,” perhaps they’d have had a better idea of what the movie was about.
“I’m sure that’s a reason why some people didn’t go see it,” Will Forte told Movieline magazine this past May. “Not seeing how a sketch like that could be turned into a full-length movie, just assuming that it would be a series of explosions every three minutes. I wouldn’t want to see that movie and I don’t blame people for not wanting to see a movie like that.”
The reviews didn’t help much either. Although they were surprisingly favorable — compare MacGruber’s 47% Rotten Tomatoes score with The Hangover Part II at 35% — many of them seemed to miss the point. More than one reviewer singled out the repetition of bad jokes in the movie as a sign of its lameness, seemingly failing to recognize that the repetition was the joke. MacGruber’s clear relish in delivering his line about taking out the villain (“let’s go pound some Cunth”) isn’t less funny the third time; it’s finally funny the third time — when it marks how twisted it is for movie heroes to say weird puns when talking about taking lives. In case we didn’t get that this is supposed to be a joke, the movie helpfully illustrates as much by having Ryan Phillipe’s quintessential straight man call out how often MacGruber uses that line. “It’s a really good line!” MacGruber says, defending himself. “I know good lines. I think them up and then I practice them in front of a mirror.”
Suggesting a hero who rehearses his catchphrases in front of a mirror is exactly the kind of trick that makes Forte and Taccone’s experiment a comedy breakthrough. Packed with 80s-signifiers like the hero’s Blaupunkt car CD player, clutch supporting performances from Kristen Wiig and Ryan Phillipe, and some surprises I don’t want to spoil (OMG, THE SEX SCENES), MacGruber is destined for a cult following it shockingly doesn’t seem to have yet — Halloween costumes and lines quoted so often you’re sick of them. Any fans of satire who haven’t checked out MacGruber yet, prepare to be converted into believers like the man himself when he finally uses a gun for the first time.
Joe Berkowitz edits books and writes stuff. He also has a Tumblr.