At The Movies: Macgruber (2009)




2009 • 99 minutes • Universal Pictures

When the MacGyver parody turned film MacGruber was selected as the Dissolve’s Film of the Week, there was a bit of an outcry, insofar as the Dissolve’s expertly curated and very polite commenteriat can cry out. Previously, most of the Films of the Week had been, if not recognized good films, at least films with either merit, undeniable cultural cache, or both. (Guess which one Top Gun falls under. Although Val Kilmer’s face in that film is plenty meritorious.) But what’s the point of discussing a film if we’re all just going to agree that it’s wonderful, so wonderful? There’s certainly a place and a time for it—there’s plenty of crying over Captain America: The Winter Soldier at the Church of Bowie—but it’s always more interesting to get multiple perspectives on something, especially something that’s often dismissed. I thought that highlighting such a divisive and largely derided film was a brilliant idea.

Although, apparently, not brilliant enough for me to go out and rent the darn thing immediately. No, it took the current throes of my second stab at Saturday Night Live fandom (this time, it’s personal) to drive me into the knee-high garden of mixed delights that is the back catalog of films based on Saturday Night Live sketches. My adoration of Will Forte’s tenderhearted madness, eighties pastiches, and the pop culture deconstructions of The Lonely Island (who only began to shine a light into the fascinating and horrifying remix culture depths currently mined by “Too Many Cooks,” Neil Cicierega, and their heirs on Saturday Night Live, Good Neighbor) had finally gotten the better of me. Or, more specifically, the better of Captain Cinema and I, because she’s the one who fetched the DVD from the public library.

The reason that Saturday Night Live films are largely reviled is because it’s very difficult to translate sketch comedy into a feature length film. At a panel on Mulaney at the New York Television Festival, John Mulaney talked about the difference in character work between sketches and sitcoms. You can’t throw the characters under a bus, figuratively or literally, because you need them back in one piece. This is especially pertinent for MacGruber, because every MacGruber sketch followed the same formula and ended with everyone blowing up due to MacGruber’s utter incompetence. Even the usual winning formula, of taking a step back and looking at the world these characters inhabit (see The Blues Brothers and Wayne’s World), can’t work here. So what do you do?

Well, the creative team behind MacGruber—largely composed of Jorma Taccone, John Solomon, and Will Forte—decided to make a parody of eighties action films that alternates reverence and irreverence to that unique genre. Will Forte’s MacGruber, functioning as the Great American Hero, is a coward, asshole, and sociopath of the highest order, able to nimbly frame himself as the victim of the villain despite marrying said villain’s pregnant girlfriend (and convincing her to terminate said pregnancy) and spend most of the film planning revenge on a man who cut him off in traffic instead of doing his job. That, as the wonderful minds at the Dissolve pointed out, is subversive enough, even without Forte’s one hundred percent dedication to whatever he’s doing, be it uncomfortable sex scenes (witness Kristen Wiig being unable to get through a take without laughing even in the final product) or distracting “bad guys” by parading around with a stick of celery clenched between his buttcheeks. But the environment Will Forte wrecks havoc on is a slavish and honestly astonishing, given the budget, recreation of a mid-level action film. But the problem is that it’s played totally straight, to the point that large swathes of MacGruber function as a mediocre action movie instead of an action comedy. Case in point: Ryan Philippe plays the straight man of the team, Lt. Dixon Piper, almost too straight. While he does react like a normal person to MacGruber’s bizarre behavior—one highlight of the film is MacGruber using Dixon as a human shield on pure instinct—he never quite makes the emotional jump to said bizarre behavior, even as he does it himself. To be fair, Captain Cinema and I spent the entire movie wishing he was Channing Tatum, because nobody does action comedy like Channing Tatum. And she hasn’t even seen either of the Jump Street films.

There are some good jokes in MacGruber, from the small detail of MacGruber’s fanatical devotion to his removable car radio to a throwaway scene of Val Kilmer’s villain, Dieter von Cunth, lovingly painting an abstract of a nude older woman. A pre-Bridesmaids Kristen Wiig plays Vicki St. Elmo, the only other human being in the film remotely on the same wavelength as MacGruber. Her childish line readings, perfectly dated makeup, and quiet bafflement are all an utter delight. (And there’s something really, really adorable about the gag reel, in which Wiig cannot stop laughing at Forte during their big love scene.) And all respect must be paid to film that looks this good on ten million dollars. But, by and large, MacGruber remains a very divisive film, and I’m on the negative side of the divide.

My roommate rented this DVD from the public library.

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