SXSW Review: MacGruber

By  · Published on March 17th, 2010

To undertake an SNL sketch adaptation is to navigate some rough waters. When these films are good, they are great; Blues Brothers jumps immediately to mind. But when they are done poorly, they are the definition of abysmal: The Ladies Man, Superstar, Coneheads, and Night at the Roxbury are just a few of that lot. So when it was announced that a movie version of the MacGruber sketch was in the works, I was understandably skeptical. Of the recent slate of SNL sketches, and anymore it seems that laughs on the show are few and far between, MacGruber wore out its welcome long ago. It was a one note gag that has limped on as a nostalgic meme but, at least for me, the guffaws have turned to reproachful silence. But, in the interest of objectivity, I swallowed my doubts and my dread and sat down, willing to let MacGruber prove me wrong.

For the first half hour of the film, it did exactly that. Due to what appeared to be clever, self-aware screen-writing, the film was more a spoof on action films themselves than another visit to a limited source pool. It was the same kind of treatment given to the genre by Hot Shots in the 90s but with a distinctly modern twist to lampoon our current climate of action films. True to that form, the plot is incredibly simplistic; bad guy steals nuclear weapon, threatens world, the government’s best operative – and arch nemesis of bad guy – is pulled out of secret retirement to stop him. It’s very A-B-C writing, but for the first few minutes of the film it was enhanced by legitimate parody and strong comedic performances.

Then the movie had the audacity to continue for another hour. With these films, the principle concern for anyone going in with the capacity for critical thinking is how to make something that works for two minutes stretch into an hour and a half. This has been the litmus test for SNL films from day one. The Blues Brothers was clever, character-based, and even a little dark, but it also had the advantage of being written and directed by John Landis (with Dan Aykroyd as a co-writer). As skilled as MacGruber writing duo Will Forte and John Solomon may be, it’s hard to compete with that. Despite the fact that I don’t find the MacGruber sketch funny for two minutes, the film starts strong. Unfortunately, once it starts to wane, its descent goes uncorrected.

Part of the problem is that there are modern comedy cliches attached to a source that never utilized them in the first place. The completely inept man-child archetype that was the crux of nearly all of Will Ferrell’s films is stapled haphazardly to MacGruber when it really doesn’t need to be. The shtick of the sketch is that the guy constructs makeshift bomb defusing devices that ultimately fail; the look and feel of MacGuyver with the impersonator’s actions being the antithesis of the parodied character. We don’t need him to also be completely moronic and all-too-willing to perform oral sex on other guys to pad out the character. To me, that is lazy screen-writing that apes already pedestrian conventions.

I will say that Kristen Wiig can’t help but be funny no matter what film she’s doing. The woman has a natural comedic presence that seems effortless but is always indicative of her dedication. Ryan Phillippe spends most of the film out of his element, but it’s also clear he’s really trying so I can’t fault him for a phoned-in performance. Val Kilmer prompts a few chuckles, but shows nowhere near comedic competence as he did in, say, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

Beyond that, I don’t have a lot of nice things to say about MacGruber, it’s exactly as juvenile and brainless as it looks. But the startling lack of hatred I have toward it is more than I could have hoped for – moments of actual hilarity cropping up intermittently. I won’t bore you with details but sufficed to say a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances coincided with my entering this theater, and I still didn’t think it was awful. That’s not exactly high praise, but it’s far more than I expected.

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.