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Review: ‘MacGruber’ helps redefine skit-based cinema


Last week in Austin, Texas, Hollywood News was able to attend the first-ever screening of MacGruber, director Jorma Taccone’s big-screen adaptation of the Saturday Night Live skit of the same name. Although it’s hardly the sort of film that requires deeper reflection – it’s about a mulleted, would-be bomb-defuser who’s not above sticking vegetables in inappropriate places in order to get the job done – it’s been turning over and over in my head for the past week. Because more than just being the first SNL-related film in almost a decade, MacGruber may prove to be the one that resuscitates the show as a screen property, since its small-screen callbacks, theatrical references and shockingly raunchy original ideas effortlessly come together in one of not only the best spinoffs, but the best all-around comedies in recent memory.

Forte reprises his role as MacGruber, a high-level government operative who retires from service after his wife Casey (Maya Rudolph) is blown up on their wedding day. Called back into action when his archenemy Dieter Von Cunth (Kilmer) absconds with a nuclear warhead, MacGruber reunites with his former partner Vicki St. Elmo (Wiig) to recover the bomb and bring down Von Cunth. But MacGruber quickly realizes that his flashy, improvisational style doesn’t work quite as well as it used to, and he reluctantly must turn to help from a new recruit named Dixon Piper (Philippe) in order to carry out his mission and repair his sullied reputation.

While I never expected a film version of MacGruber to be a neverending series of near-miss explosions, viewers familiar with its original incarnation will be relieved to know that writer-director Taccone and his co-creators Forte and John Solomon has fleshed out the character’s mythology to something suitable for feature length. Somewhat obviously, the character was conceived as a parody of Richard Dean Anderson’s iconic tinkerer MacGyver, but the screenwriters expanded their cinematic palette to include the language of 1980s action movies, complete with noisy exposition, broad characterizations and absurdly overstated visuals.

There’s a charm to the film’s hidden-in-plain-sight monologues about motivation and background precisely because the filmmakers are so aware how obvious they sound, but they nevertheless provide important information even when they’re sending up those old-school lists of accolades and credentials that once signified we should take someone seriously on screen. Meanwhile, Taccone’s direction, augmented by the cinematography of Brandon Trost, perfectly recreates the style of Jerry Bruckheimer productions like Top Gun and Flashdance, creating a look for the film that manages to work both as parody and genuinely good direction. Unlike SNL adaptations of the past, MacGruber looks like a film first and a skit second, and that cinematic quality is what elevates the material and makes it appealing to folks other than just its fan base.

Meanwhile, it’s hard to recall a filthier mainstream movie than this one. Things happen in this film that I was honestly shocked to see and hear – albeit in a good way; notwithstanding MacGruber’s latent homoerotic impulses, which hilariously manifest themselves on numerous occasions (another hallmark of ‘80s action), there are shots and sequences quite literally built around some of the weirdest and wildest ideas imaginable. (One reaction shot to an explosion that occurs early in the film had me doubled over with laughter for several minutes.) At the same time, all of it comes only at the expense of MacGruber himself – it’s not mean-spirited or insulting to anyone but this ignorant, hyper-sensitive doofus, whose list of accomplishments include more casualties than successful rescues and quite frankly who deserves the degree of humiliation he receives. That the story provides him with two back-to-back sex scenes set to Mr. Mister would in another film be punch line enough, but thanks to Taccone’s smoke-filled, hyper-erotic staging, the payoff to both provides some of the movie’s most tender, awkward and hysterical moments all at the same time.

In terms of Saturday Night Live’s sometimes-dubious pedigree as a purveyor of big-screen ideas, it’s fair to say that MacGruber is not only the best of their films in more than a decade, but it easily ranks among the best that the show has ever been associated with. The problem with hyperbole where SNL is concerned, however, is that it’s always been a show connected to audiences primarily if not exclusively by its cast members; folks introduced to the show during the Dan Aykroyd-John Belushi era will favor the Blues Brothers, people in their teens during the days of Mike Myers and Dana Carvey prefer Wayne’s World, and so on. This shift from one generation of cast members to another has made it enormously difficult to fairly compare almost any of the films to one another (notwithstanding the evergreen stinkers like It’s Pat), even if (as in this case) their merits as a flat-out funny movie, regardless of that association, are immediately discernible.

In which case, it seems unlikely that MacGruber will redeem SNL for the folks who have moved on from the show. It’s loud, broad, dirty, and deceptively dumb. But it’s a movie that knows it’s all of those things, and uses those qualities to get to something more interesting, something smarter, or at the very least, something funnier. It’s more than a faithful recreation or adaptation of the skit upon which it’s based, and it’s more than a big-screen reward for the folks who helped MacGruber survive as a character even though he didn’t live through his skits. But ultimately, MacGruber needn’t be transgressive in order to transform those associations and expectations of longtime fans (not to mention detractors), it just needs to be good. And it is, which is why much like the character’s casualty-to-survivor ratio, it was almost worth sitting through all of those lesser SNL films just to get to this one, because without them we might not appreciate what a triumph MacGruber really is, both for them as creators and for us as fans.

Read our exclusive interview with Will Forte and Jorma Taccone from SXSW

About Todd Gilchrist

Todd Gilchrist is a Los Angeles-based film critic and entertainment journalist. Over the past decade he worked at a variety of online and print publications, including the Miami New Times, Filmstew.com, SCI FI Wire, and IGN.com, where he wrote reviews, conducted interviews with actors and filmmakers, and edited Movies, DVD and Music content. He currently works for Cinematical.com among other outlets, and has been a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association since 2005.

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  • March 24, 2010 | Permalink |

    This looks like a great film, I can’t wait until it comes to theaters

  • March 24, 2010 | Permalink |

    I can’t wait to see Kilmer in this, he is awesome. Glad to hear it’s funny

  • March 25, 2010 | Permalink |

    Well-said. I also had the chance to see MacGruber at SXSW and I agree completely. One of the funniest movies I’ve seen in a very long time – tight, clever, and very well made. I hope that people don’t shrug it off because it’s SNL based. It’s really worth the watch. Can’t wait for it to open so I can go see it again with more friends.

  • May 17, 2010 | Permalink |

    cant wait to see it..Jorma Taccone is a genius…

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