Wednesday, March 11, 2020

MacGruber Makes Life-Saving Inventions But Only So-So Movies

Saturday Night Live has somewhat faded out the kind of wacky self-contained characters that were able to be spun-off into so many movies in the 1990s and early 2000s. Last week's re-appearance of Rachel Dratch's Debbie Downer reinforced how the new cast members, save for the occasional Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started A Conversation With, don't really engage in that type of humor anymore. That's probably why we haven't seen as many SNL movies lately. Well, that and the dismal box office results of the vast majority of these titles, including the most recent entry in this fold, MacGruber, a May 2010 Jorma Taccone directorial effort that's managed to generate a cult following in the years since its release.

The character of MacGruber is a figure played by Will Forte that serves as a parody of MacGyver, that Richard Dean Anderson TV character who could make handy gadgets out of any household items around him. Forte's MacGruber is a much more egotistical and far less effective individual in his SNL sketches. To stretch him out into a feature-length film, Taccone and company (which includes Forte helping to write the screenplay) have plopped the titular protagonist into a parody of 1980s action movies. MacGruber is called upon to stop the dastardly plans of Dieter von Cunth (Val Kilmer), which requires him to work with potential new love interest Vicky (Kristen Wiig) and a younger agent he doesn't get along with named Piper (Ryan Phillippe).

Lampooning the rampant machismo inherent in the lead characters of many 80s action movies by having MacGruber be a figure who lays all the worst traits of such characters out for all the world to see is a pretty smart idea on a conceptual level. To boot, it's one that fits in with the idea of exploring and undercutting toxic masculinity that's run throughout Taccone's work in The Lonely Island. Unfortunately, in executing these notions, MacGruber is more sporadically amusing than consistently hilarious. Perhaps its greatest asset is in how it makes one appreciate the structure of then-future Taccone directorial effort Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping all the more.

Like MacGruber, that 2016 comedy also starred a petulant man-child (in this case singer Conner4Real) who epitomized all the worst traits of male figures prominent in American pop culture. However, Popstar used a mockumentary format that allowed the focus of the project to constantly shift.around so that we're not exclusively stuck with Conner4Real for the entire runtime. The expansive roster of highly entertaining supporting characters ensured that Popstar could get humor from anywhere and not just by running Conner4Real's schtick into the ground. By contrast, the more limited scope of Taccone's MacGruber sees the audience stuck with the titular lead the entire time while the rest of the cast inhabits broad archetypes from 80s action movies that mostly act as straight men to MacGruber's antics.

Will Forte is a very funny comedian, only an a performer with his level of immense commitment to the most brazenly bizarre comedy could have made an SNL sketch like NASA Potato Chip work as well as it did. However, even he can't carry this entire movie on his back and his performance as MacGruber isn't consistently funny enough to justify the movie stemming almost its entire comedy from MacGruber acting grotesque. A bigger issue than anything having to do with Forte's performance is that the supporting players just aren't memorable enough in terms of comedy. Particularly underwhelming are Ryan Phillippe as a sidekick while Val Kilmer's baddie is surprisingly rote both in terms of Kilmer's performance and how the character is written. Surely there's more comedy to be wrung out of a parody of a 1980s action movie antagonist than just having his last name be one letter removed from a naughty word?

All of this is not to say that MacGruber is totally devoid of funny moments. Anything involving Maya Rudolph as the deceased lover of MacGruber is hysterical while Powers Boothe delivers a performance as MacGruber's superior that could have fit right into a serious action movie, which makes for amusing juxtaposition. Forte also gets a fair share of gags as MacGruber that are funny enough to make it understandable why the people behind MacGruber thought this SNL character could sustain a whole movie. Unfortunately, for every gag it pulls off with panache, MacGruber delivers a joke that totally stumbles. It's the kind of mixed bag of a comedy that fails to make a great case for why we need more SNL sketches turned into movies.

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