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Monday, June 16, 2014

Summer Not-Busters: MacGruber (2010)

Director: Jorma Taccone
Starring: Will Forte, Kristen Wiig, Ryan Phillippe, Val Kilmer
Domestic Gross: $8,525,600

Never underestimate the importance of branding. While Saturday Night Live has found varying degrees of success in television for 39 seasons and counting, attempts to transfer that success over to film have, for the most part, been failures. Of the eleven feature films spun off from Saturday Night Live, only two have really been successful: 1980's The Blues Brothers and 1992's Wayne's World. Eight failed films since Wayne's World meant that MacGruber came with a lot of baggage and a very bad pedigree. Instead of having good associations based on being part of a series of funny and entertaining films, it would have to fight an uphill battle against the notion that it was a concept stretched far too thin, based on what amounted to one joke. Judging by its box office, that battle was lost, which is a shame since unlike every other film I've watched for this series, MacGruber is actually pretty good.

As the film opens, former Green Beret/Navy SEAL/Army Ranger MacGruber (Will Forte) has been "dead" for years but is sought out and "reactivated" for duty after the notorious Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer) seizes a nuclear warhead. Although the fate of the world is the main concern, MacGruber also has a personal vendetta against Von Cunth as a result of Von Cunth's murder of MacGruber's fiancee. After assembling, and then accidentally killing, an elite team to take on Von Cunth, MacGruber forms another team with his old friend, Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig), and Lt. Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe), whom he detests and whose ability underscores MacGruber's lack of same. After failing to prevent Von Cunth from purchasing the pass codes that will enable him to use his ill-gotten rocket, and after MacGruber subsequently uses Piper as a human shield during an ambush, the trio breaks up. It isn't until Vicki is kidnapped by Von Cunth and MacGruber realizes that the ultimate plan is to bomb the State of the Union address that MacGruber and Piper put their differences aside and reteam to finally finish the job.

Directed by Jorma Taccone and written by Taccone, Forte, and John Solomon, MacGruber is a send up of the TV series MacGyver specifically, but '80s action movies generally. There is a fine attention to detail here in that respect, from the montage in which MacGruber puts together his first team of veterans (who have names like Tug and Brick and Tut) to the love scene between MacGruber and Vicki (the first half, set to "Broken Wings" and lit in purplish hues, not the second half, which is grotesquely hilarious), to the film's various musical cues and a shot of MacGruber playing the saxophone to express his manly sensitivity. Though the story is set in the present day, its hero is embalmed in '80s sensibility, at once a celebration and rejection of the hyper-masculinity of the indestructible action movie heroes of a bygone era. MacGruber is a perversion of the steely, endlessly resourceful, brutally capable protagonist. He knows the pose and strikes it at virtually every moment, but he has little ability to live up to it during crunch time, breaking down in tears and whining when things go wrong and immediately offering sexual favors to get him out of a jam. Further, his refusal to use a gun stems not from the sense of integrity he claims, but from the fact that he doesn't know how to use one (despite being a Green Beret/Navy SEAl/Army Ranger). As soon as he does learn how to use a gun, he repudiates his entire persona by declaring that guns are "so much better than those stupid fucking gadgets I used to make!"

MacGruber works, in large part, because Forte commits so thoroughly to the character in all his ridiculousness. Parody can fail when the person doing it spends too much time winking at the audience and making it clear that they're in on the joke. Forte invests in MacGruber and plays him as an actual character rather than merely a springboard persona for a series of jokes, and he's ably assisted by the supporting cast. Phillippe plays his role completely straight as the increasingly frustrated Piper, a character who more naturally fits into the mold of hero but who spends almost the entire film as MacGruber's punching bag precisely because he's so much better at things than his tormentor, and Wiig, who in her tenure at Saturday Night Live often dominated scenes but in films tends to underplay a bit more, is an effective bridge character who can connect the "lost in time" zaniness of MacGruber to the bland contemporary competence of Piper. Kilmer, meanwhile, makes a great foil for Forte and his performance here in conjunction with his performance in the criminally underseen Kiss Kiss Bang Bang make a solid argument that he would be a successful comedic actor if only anyone ever saw the comedies he's already made.

The ultimate irony of MacGruber in relation to the Saturday Night Live films which preceded it is that the MacGruber sketches were shorter than other SNL sketches (albeit appearing as three short sketches placed at various points of an episode), yet the character is one of the few SNL-based characters who can actually carry a film. This is, in part, because unlike Mary Catherine Gallagher of Superstar or Pat from It's Pat!, the MacGruber character isn't just a "funny weirdo," but something more deeply rooted to a particular period of pop culture. MacGruber works because it has a lot to play with, because it can start with that concept of "MacGyver type has to diffuse a bomb but gets distracted and everything blows up" and then branch out in different directions while still staying true to that initial conceit, while most other SNL characters can only flail for 90 or so minutes within their very particular limitations.

Coming from a tarnished brand and finding little love from critics (it has a 43 score on Metacritic and 47% from Rotten Tomatoes, though the latter notes that it "is better than many SNL films - and better than it probably should be"), MacGruber sunk like a rock at the box office when it failed to find an audience. Out of theaters, it seems to have grown into a cult comedy and finally found its champions, which is great because it actually is a solidly entertaining and funny film that deals very well in the absurd.

Should It Have Been a Blockbuster? I'd say yes, but I think that maybe MacGruber is just a little too beautiful for this world. It wears it's "cult comedy" status well.

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