Film Review: MacGruber

MacGruber! Did they really make a movie out of that one-joke "SNL" character? MacGruber! Can a 90-second sketch become a funny feature film? MacGruber! Well, it's no 'Wayne's World' but at least it's not 'It's Pat.' MacGruber!

It’s been ten years since The Ladies Man effectively put an end to big-screen versions of “Saturday Night Live” sketches and, in the intervening decade, there’s been a great deal of speculation about which actor/character combo would get the once-profitable franchise rolling again. Would it be Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph as “Bronx Beat” babes Betty and Jodi? How about Kenan Thompson’s brassy serial-divorcée Virginiaca? Or maybe one of Kristen Wiig’s numerous creations like, say, the Target Lady, Aunt Linda or Gilly? (Honestly, let’s all hope that the latter character never finds her way to the movie theatre. While we’re at it, ban her from appearing on the series anymore as well.)

With all the options “SNL” guru Lorne Michaels had to choose from, few would have guessed that he'd deem Will Forte’s MacGruber as the personality most worthy of a feature film. For one thing, MacGruber—a spoof of MacGyver, the resourceful hero of the eponymous ’80s series starring Richard Dean Anderson—is a one-joke character whose sketches rarely run longer than a minute or so. Each one follows the same premise: MacGruber, his intrepid sidekick (Wiig) and a random third person (usually played by that week’s guest star) are locked in a small room next to a bomb that’s about to go off. In true MacGyver fashion, MacGruber begins to defuse the bomb using whatever is at hand, but inevitably gets distracted from his task and, seconds later, an enormous explosion blows them to smithereens. By the time the next sketch starts, though, all three are back in the land of the living, albeit still trapped in the same room with the same bomb and the same stupid distractions. It’s like a version of No Exit that Sartre might have written after a few too many late nights on the couch watching “MacGyver” repeats while inhaling some grade-A weed.

Given those limitations, it was clear that some serious changes were in order if MacGruber was going to go from the star of a 90-second sketch to a 90-minute feature. So Forte and his "SNL" co-writers John Solomon and Jorma Taccone (who also directed the film) put on their thinking caps—or, to be more accurate, re-watched every cheesy ’80s action movie they could get their hands on—and came up with MacGruber 2.0, who should perhaps be called MacRambo. The scribes certainly aren't shy about raiding that seminal Sly Stallone franchise for material; not only does ex-military man MacGruber begin the movie living in seclusion somewhere in Asia a la Rambo III, but his signature combat move is ripping an opponent's throat out, a skill that Rambo employed to such memorable effect in the fourth flick.

He's also acquired a tragic backstory that's straight out of Lethal Weapon. On his wedding day, he watched the love of his life (Maya Rudolph in a too-brief cameo) be blown to bits in front of him—a gift from his arch-nemesis Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer). Now, many years later, Von Cunth has launched another diabolical scheme that involves firing a nuclear warhead at Washington, D.C. It's up to MacGruber to save the day, but he can't do it without the help of the comely Vicki St. Elmo (Wiig) and no-nonsense soldier Lt. Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe). Seriously, MacGruber really can't save the day without these two—truth is, he's kind of a moron.

The idea of turning this cast and these writers loose on ’80s action cinema seems like a can't-miss proposition. In theory, MacGruber could have been a 21st-century version of Airplane! or The Naked Gun, a nonstop barrage of gags—including pratfalls, non-sequiturs and good old-fashioned dirty jokes—flying off the screen so fast and furiously viewers barely catch their breath in between bouts of laughter. And the movie does contain several big, big laughs. There's a pair of hilariously uncomfortable sex scenes, some choice uses of awful ’80s music (the film makes room for Toto, Michael Bolton and Mr. Mister) and a number of flat-out filthy—but hysterical!—one-liners that are unprintable here. (In one of them, MacGruber compares his own face, I can't say it.) In these moments, logic, order and common human decency go out the window and, to borrow a line from Lars von Trier, chaos reigns.

Frankly, MacGruber would have benefited from even more chaos. For too much of its slender running time, the movie is oddly restrained, as if the filmmakers were reluctant to wholly embrace the absurdity of the premise and title character. Obviously, some of the humor is meant to be derived from the fact that everyone is playing a specific scene or bit of business straight, but there's such a thing as playing it too straight, to the point where you forget to be, you know, funny. Perhaps it's due to Taccone's inexperience as a director, but the pacing is positively glacial at times and there are long stretches where the guffaws are few and far between.

Part of the problem is that the movie can't make up its mind about is own hero. Is he an idiot savant or just a plain old idiot? Should he acknowledge his mistakes and failings or simply ignore them as “Police Squad”’s top cop Frank Drebin did, assuming that he's the only sane person in a world full of lunatics when, in fact, the opposite is true? Too many scenes here involve other characters explicitly calling out MacGruber for his stupidity, which just comes across as a lazy and mean-spirited way to try to score laughs.

For his part, Forte throws himself into his role with Will Ferrell-like gusto, meaning that he's more than happy to doff his shirt and pants if the scene requires it (and even if it doesn't). And while Phillippe is largely a wash as the requisite straight man—his comic timing is as stiff as his uniform—Wiig and Kilmer are great foils for Forte, stealing a number of scenes by underplaying brilliantly while the star goes big and broad.

MacGruber may not ultimately be a strong argument in favor of more "SNL"-inspired movies, but at least isn't a blight on the show's legacy like, say, Superstar or Blues Brothers 2000.