Monday, October 11, 2010

MacGruber: Da Bomb?

Sometimes you want a juicy steak, Fillet Mignon. And sometimes you want a huge cone of cotton candy.

I'm paraphrasing a line my father still uses to this day (I say "paraphrase" because you know fathers; they never say it the same way twice). What he means by this is that quality is subjective to mood. Sometimes want that fancy meal, that diamond necklace, those tickets to Phantom of the Opera. In film terms, it would refer to the surefire Oscar darlings and critically reviewed of previewed films. Inception fits here, as do the upcoming Black Swan and The King's Speech. But sometimes you just want to kick back and relax with junk food, beer, and tickets to a WWE show. Sometimes going the trashy route is exactly what your body needs, what your mind craves. And sometimes, even knowing that you're involved in something tawdry, you can still be surprised by the product involved.

This is the best America has to offer
By all intents and purposes, MacGruber should have been a crap film. The Saturday Night Live series of skits has been possibly one of the most popular skits in SNL's last decade, if not the entire show's run. Created by SNL scribe Jorma Taccone, the character - a direct parody of the famous Richard Dean Anderson hero MacGuyver - first made his appearance alongside show host Jeremy Piven in January 2007, starring Will Forte in the titular role of the bumbling government agent who would attempt to disable a bomb but be distracted by personal problems, resulting in explosion and (presumably) death, only to be resurrected the next week and placed in a whole new bomb-diffusing scenario. They're ridiculous. They're silly. They're often quite funny. What they are NOT is high caliber comedy. They're of a closer bloodline to Family Guy than The Naked Gun, graduates of the Judd Apatow school of toilet humor, and for thirty-second skits, that's fine. Watch, get a chuckle, see an explosion, and then check the other channels to see if there's anything else on.

How the mighty have fallen...
When news was announced that a movie was actually going to be built from this funny-but-limited sketch, skepticism was of course warranted. After all, how funny could a one-note joke really be over 90 minutes? As it turns out, pretty funny. After terrorists hijack a nuclear missile and threaten to blow up the US Capitol, the military seeks out the best man for the job. MacGruber (still played by SNL's Will Forte)  puts together a team including his former assistant Vicki St. Elmo (Kristin Wiig) and young hotshot Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe) in order to find and disarm the weapon, currently in the clutches of MacGruber's nemesis, businessman Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer). What follows is more gross-out humor than explosions, but thankfully it's more than a one-note sideshow.

So THAT'S where the $10 million went!
The key to this film might be it's connections to the original creative team. Taccone makes his cinema directorial debut here, and is a big part of the reason the story remains on track for much of the film. The script was even penned by the show's writers: Forte, Taccone and John Solomon. Even original Macgruber assistant Maya Rudolph has a small role in the film, cementing it's origins. For the first time in a long time, SNL didn't entrust their creation to the treatment of a foreign power. Instead they decided to trust that their own people, who had cared and nurtured their favored character to this point, could oversee this final step. It's giving credit where credit's due and daring your creative team to do better than their best day so far, and in this case it produces a better experience for the audience than the film rightly should be doling out.

Literally holding the audience captive
I would be hard-pressed to say that there's any good acting in MacGruber, instead pointing out that there's more ham than you can get from a whole pig and more posturing than a Calvin Klein ad. Forte plays off dozens of action hero stereotypes as the the film's hero, a self-assured, arrogant wise-ass who breaks down emotionally on a regular basis and can rig anything into some type of weapon or tool to do what needs to be done. He really hams up the role, important since that's the major way he evokes his original character's silliness, a must-have for the film to be any good. Wiig is quite enjoyable as the assistant St. Elmo, an apparent espionage master (despite the fact that she fools nobody in her disguises) and singer who's falling for her former boss. You can debate whether or not she deserves her Emmy nominations, but the timeless quality to her humor makes her one of the few current SNL'ers to keep an eye on in the future. Phillippe and Powers Booth play military men and straight men to Forte's nut job, and both do okay jobs in that regard, grounding the film in some small semblance of reality. Phillippe does have a couple of comedic moments to keep his character from being completely boring, but I stand by all earlier statements calling him overrated and over-hyped. He's simply not a good actor, never has been. Val Kilmer's once-good looks have faded to the wrinkles of husky-boy syndrome, but he's actually pretty good as the comic-book style villain Cunth. His best scene is one where he holds a conversation with his stolen missile, one where even though it appears liberally in the trailer, still can elicit a chuckle. Maya Rudolph, playing former MacGruber assistant and wife Casey Sullivan, is probably the most disappointing in the cast. I say that well knowing that anything since her Golden Globe nominated performance in Away We Go would be, but this is further down than even I thought she would go. The film's budget was only $10 million, so they couldn't have paid her THAT much to reprise her small role. Her role, while somewhat important to the main story, is hardly necessary, and less talented actresses could have been brought in for all the effort put into the part.

You know they're evil because they're wearing black in the desert
The story is hardly a home run shot either, as the movie takes the Parody Express, borrowing from every 80's and 90's action films that have been on the big screen.  it even seems to borrow from other parodies, most notably those of the hilarious Hot Shots films. This was to be expected in the news of it's production, but you still can't help but be disappointed when the film fails to be innovative. As noted before, it relies heavily on gross-out humor ("I like holes") in it's execution, and very little of the film feels at all "smart". While it's by far the best SNL-skit film since the original Wayne's World, it's nowhere near the older film's level of IQ or humor. It does however retain the charm of the original skit, thanks mostly to the performances of it's leads.

He's more of a "three wire" guy
Though MacGruber does run out of steam towards the end, it was great to see the climactic "bomb diffusing" scene play straight out of a SNL skit, and it was very surprising to find that this film was much funnier than it had any business being, considering the source. Though a long way away from their best films,MacGruber may be the beginning of a new series of films from Lorne Michael's skit library. And if those films can come anywhere close to MacGruber, than they'll be funnier than a hundred Coneheads or It's Pat. It's funny. It's silly. It has little in the way of redeemable qualities, and it was a box office flop for a reason. But it's cotton candy.

And that's okay.

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