After more than thirty years of making us laugh (admittedly, some years have been better than others), Saturday Night Live can’t just be considered a TV show. For late night comedy– hell, for all comedy– SNL represents the foundation for the careers of innumerable funny men and women from Steve Martin to Tina Fey. It’s an undeniable cornerstone of comic culture. Unhappily, little positive can be said about the program’s ventures into realms cinematic, where attempts to stretch out sketches meant to be digested in mere increments fail to sustain themselves over the course of a feature-length film. Night at the Roxbury, Coneheads, Superstar, The Ladies Man…the list goes on, with only the Wayne’s World films coming out ahead. Outside of those two pictures (and depending on who you consult, only the first is worth watching in the first place), SNL‘s presence in the multiplex looks pretty grim.
So when word of the latest SNL-to-screen adaptation hit, the skeptical reaction was expected. Especially given that the skit in question, MacGruber– a MacGyver parody arriving far too late to be relevant or funny to any but those who consider riffs on terrible 80s programming to be the height of cleverness– ends with the wanton destruction of all characters involved. (Spoilers!) If there was one sketch that seemed totally incapable of succeeding in an expanded format, it’s MacGruber, a conceit so painfully unamusing that the mere thought of sitting through an overstuffed version of it seems less appealing than rubbing salt into an open wound.
But wait– there’s a twist here. Right now you’re thinking that I’m about to sharpen my shears and cut this pile of celluloid to ribbons, but let me tell you, that’s not what’s about to happen. You may have read other reviews by other critics (how dare you!) suggesting that MacGruber stands out as the best of the SNL movies and they’re right, but not by virtue of their poor quality. No, MacGruber is…actually kinda good.
MacGruber follows the misadventures of the eponymous action hero/screw-up as the US Army (represented here by the always-reliable Powers Boothe) seeks to pull him out of retirement and enlist him for one last important mission. It seems that Dieter Van Cunth (Val Kilmer, reminding everyone how clutch he is in a comedy) has stolen an unbelievably lethal weapon of mass destruction with designs to use it on the US capitol. MacGruber, we’re told, is the only one who can stop Van Cunth and save the free world as we know it. The premise is both familiar and also unlike the basic conceit of the sketch, for which we can thank the combined efforts of writing team Will Forte, John Solomon, and Jorma Taccone; they’ve veered off of the path of the skit and broadened their story to skewer more than just the program from which the character is derived, taking precise aim at 80’s and 90’s action movies as a conglomerate. Dire, world-threatening situation? Check. Unfathomably wealthy bad guy with membership in amongst the cultural elite? Check. Bad guys dying in waves against the unstoppable onslaught of our heroes? Check. Everything comes down to the wire as MacGruber and his B-team (his A-team dies immediately after being assembled) races against the clock to put an end to Dieter’s devious devices and defend liberty and freedom for everyone.
MacGruber works primarily– no, solely– by virtue of how far away from the television the character moves. Of course anyone can immediately understand why the sketch had to change to make it into a theater, so the vast differences between the two versions make obvious sense; this isn’t some massive critical revelation. Taccone, Forte, and Solomon clearly get that the film had to be altered in transitioning between formats, but more than that the team understand how far their picture needs to be taken. There’s a surplus of crude and childish humor for your viewing pleasure on display in MacGruber, and it’s coupled with a pretty eyebrow-raising amount of fairly graphic and comic violence. Sure, MacGruber gets his team out of tight spots with his improvisations (well, not really) that are fairly harmless, but leave the man bereft of sewing thread, celery stalks (not a typo), and thumb tacks and he’ll show off his propensity for rippin’ throats. And no, that’s not a metaphor.
This is a comedy that really goes the distance and re-establishes its boundaries constantly as it moves forward. Anything less would have been lukewarm at best, a catastrophe at worst, and it’s MacGruber‘s willingness to really sully itself and its audiences that makes it shine. But the film goes there, and while it’s still hampered by its limitations as the product of modern-day Saturday Night Live, there’s an enormous amount of comic gold that has been mined from the paper-thin set-up. It’s miraculous that even chunks of the movie are hysterical; that MacGruber manages to never lose steam throughout presents evidence of twisted genius on behalf of all involved.
Will Forte amazes here. The actor has a knack for deadpanning the most bizarre and disturbing dialogue and playing it as straight as can be, and MacGruber provides a great showcase for that particular talent– pay rapt attention during his exposition detailing the origins of his rivalry with Cunth. As the same time he knows when to take MacGruber less seriously and go over the top with absurdity. Forte goes from opening up to Dixon, Phillipe’s inexperienced academy graduate, about his haunted past to screaming and flailing in panic when trained assassins arrive to kill them, doing an excellent job dialing back and forth between his two personalities.
Phillipe deserves special mention. This is a guy who, on first glance, doesn’t have a single funny bone in his body. That makes his position as the straight man incredibly appropriate, and also gives him room to maneuver so he can squeeze in a few laughs of his own. It’s a pretty plum role for him, and he does a lot with it even though he’s mostly there to react to the ridiculous things Forte does. Wiig is given less to do, but like Forte she knows her way around line delivery and can turn out a number of laughs from something as simple as a quiet, disgusted reaction towards Kilmer’s bad guy. And that brings us, last but not at all least, to Kilmer himself. Somehow, today, Kilmer still doesn’t seem to carry a rightfully earned reputation as being goddamn funny. This after, notably, Top Secret and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, both of which display him in top form (though they’re both very different roles). Cunth isn’t a wacky, out-there character like MacGruber– he’s more of a cross between Forte and Phillipe– but that doesn’t mean he’s not capable of killing with a single line or muted expression. Seeing Kilmer work at all these days is wonderful, and seeing him get such a beefy comic role moreso.
MacGruber has almost no business being so entertaining and flat-out funny. Considering how far SNL has fallen from its best days in terms of comic quality, and considering just how one-note and irrelevant the original sketch is, for MacGruber to have been a colossal waste of time would have been somewhat expected and even forgivable. While the actual film won’t change the face of cinematic humor as we know it, it’s a great time at the multiplex and a really worthwhile action comedy, chock-full of laughs.