Written by Will Forte, John Solomon, and Jorma Taccone
Directed by Jorma Taccone
Saturday Night Live has a decades-long legacy of adapting characters from the sketch comedy series into feature films. It started with The Blue Brothers and has given us such varied movies as Wayne’s World, The Coneheads, and It’s Pat, to name just a few. More often than not, these movies are not very good, with Wayne’s World and The Blues Brothers being the rare exceptions. These days you see films designed more as vehicles for the actors rather than recurring characters they played. MacGruber is a hybrid of both an extended version of a sketch character and a spotlight on Will Forte and his collaborator’s personal comedic aesthetics. That means if you don’t gel with what they find funny, this will likely be a tough one to get through.
MacGruber (Forte) is a slight parody of the American television character MacGyver. Like MacGyver, this character will cobble together devices made from ordinary objects to help him in situations. However, each sketch ended with an explosion indicating MacGruber had failed. The film needs to be a little more expensive than that, so the antagonist Dieter von Cunth (Val Kilmer) is introduced by stealing a nuclear weapons device. MacG is called out of retirement and partners with Lt. Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe) and his old flame Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig) to take down Cunth and recover the device. Of course, shenanigans ensue, and we get a series of vignettes that feature MacGruber royally screwing things up.
The film can feel a little outdated in that it’s parodying a type of movie that we don’t often see anymore in the mainstream. It recalls things like Rambo II or Commando, the most recent counterpart might be some dreadful Steven Segal direct-to-streaming movie that serves as a front for organized crime laundering money. What works about the film is its aggressively stupid sense of humor. They don’t simply deliver a lewd joke; they fully commit to it to the point of absurdity. MacGruber’s penchant for using everyday objects to save the day leads to a scene where he’s shuffling back and forth, pants around his ankles, holding his penis & scrotum, with a celery stalk in his ass. These are jokes you don’t want to laugh at, but they are so entirely bonkers it becomes almost impossible not to.
The entire movie rests on the shoulders of Forte. He has a great supporting cast, but this is about him delivering a solid comedic performance at the end of the day. The character of MacGruber is a literal crazy person. A brief encounter with a rude driver becomes an ongoing obsession with our hero. At one point, Dixon discovers a composition book that simply contains the license plate number of the offending car written repeatedly. You might think there will be a twist that reveals the car belongs to one of von Cunth’s associates, and thus it ties back into the main plot. Nope. You will see a scene of MacGruber getting critical information about the plot over the phone while he smashes every window, pisses on, and ultimately sets aflame the car when he chances across it in a parking lot.
MacGruber is also a profoundly pathetic character, which brings up a lot of moments for humor. At specific moments when he needs someone’s help, he will beg and even offer up his body to be used for by the person however they like. MacGruber will lose his shit and completely ruin his team’s advantage when a cool head is needed. After stealthily entering the bad guy’s base, MacGruber kicks the legs out from underneath the plan by taunting von Cunth over the PA and telling him where the team is holed up. Then more humor is mined out of how, through sheer dumb luck, these methods lead to success. There’s a thin layer of incredulity from people, like Dixon, but the movie quickly allows those characters to join in on the silliness and not be stuck playing bland straight men.
My biggest complaint about the movie is how uneven the comedy is. Funny bits are often quick, or you’ll miss them while some unfunny jokes get stretched out way too long. There are moments where you will be in tears laughing. Forte and Wiig’s absolutely unhinged sex scene is one of the movie’s highlights, emphasizing the pathetic masculinity of MacGruber and also being plain silly. However, for every scene like that, we get long stretches where the jokes are a bit chuckle-worthy but nothing more. I think tightening up the script would have helped out a lot. I love Forte’s comedic sensibilities but wish this one had been a little more consistent in focusing on them.