starring Will Forte, Kristen Wiig, Ryan Phillippe, and Val Kilmer
written by Will Forte, John Solomon, and Jorma Taccone & directed by Jorma Taccone
Rated R for strong crude and sexual content, violence, language and some nudity.

10 years ago, American hero MacGruber (Forte) disappeared into anonymous retirement after a personal tragedy led everyone to believe him dead. Now, his old nemesis (Kilmer) has stolen a nuclear warhead, and MacGruber is the only man who can find a pair of sidekicks (Phillippe, Wiig) with the skills to survive his incredible ineptitude long enough to stop the villain.

“Saturday Night Live” has a long history as a stepping-stone on the path to comic super-stardom, and a sordid history as a stepping stone on the path to turning short sketches into painfully-unfunny feature-length films. The couple dozen “MacGruber” skits that have aired over the past few years all rely on a single recurring gag: a MacGyver-like character and his companions are trapped in a room, trying to disable a bomb with the “household materials” that happen to be lying around. Inevitably, MacGruber becomes distracted during the process, and the bomb goes off, presumably killing them all. A typical MacGruber “episode” will last about a minute, counting the theme song, which sounds like a recipe for a very painful 99-minute movie. And it is, though not for the reasons that I would have expected.

MacGruber starts off on an odd foot by not even trying to land a joke during the pre-credits-set-up-sequence, playing things completely straight. I have often observed that genre parodies have a tendency to become indistinguishable from the genre they are mocking as they move towards a climax, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that went the other direction. This is the only respect in which MacGruber is breaking new ground. The hero is a raging incompetent who stumbles towards success thanks largely to the efforts of others, basically a Don Adams character (Get Smart, Inspector Gadget), only not likable. The humor is in the vein of Hot Shots! or Team America: World Police, but less inspired.

Given that the source material basically consists of a single, infinitely-recycled joke, it should come as no surprise that every attempt at humor in this movie is going to crop up again, probably several times. This shows up in two forms: 1) a gag is repeatedly foreshadowed by the characters before it finally arrives, and 2) a gag is simply repeated. Thus we are treated to multiple scenes of someone prancing naked with a stalk of celery protruding from their anus in order to distract the bad guys, and to MacGruber reduced to begging for another chance with loud and prolonged offers of various sexual favors (just to name a few). The experience is twice as painful, because in each case you know you’re going to have to see this again, and then when it comes back around, it is accompanied by a terrible sinking feeling of apprehension: “Oh, no, not this!”

Even when something kind of works once, it isn’t guaranteed to work a second time. In the inevitable scene where the hero beds the heroine, although it is a bit excessive (the only comedic mode this movie really understands), there is a funny commentary on the way movie sex scenes titillate the audience with crafty editing and music that obscures the “ick factor” of actually watching two people have intercourse. However, the joke is immediately (and bizarrely) repeated in the very next scene when MacGruber has sex with the ghost of his dead wife. I suppose, in a way, this too is an ironic commentary on the movie’s tendency to prolong a joke long beyond the point of death, but I’d prefer not to dwell on that.

Actually, I’m fairly certain the only genuine laughs in the film come, not from Forte, but from his SNL co-star Kristen Wiig. They certainly aren’t coming from the movie’s other stars. Ryan Phillippe performs the doubly thankless task of playing straight man to an inordinate number of lame jokes, and virtually all of the humor attached to Val Kilmer revolves around his character’s name, which is spelled one letter off of an obscenity, and pronounced much the same. Because that’s definitely never been done before. I actually started to keep a tally of the number of laughs the movie attempted to milk out of this gag, but I got bored and gave up. In any case, Wiig is extremely funny, and manages to salvage enough audience goodwill to make the experience bearable.

I should definitely be clear that this is far from the worst comedy I’ve ever seen (or even seen this year), but I dwell on the most belabored and unfunny aspects of it because, in the end, they are what stands out the most. When MacGruber fields a joke that doesn’t assault the audience with a low-brow vulgarism, it feels like an anomaly. And, certainly, vulgarity can be humorous, but it is not inherently funny to be vulgar. It seems odd that professional comedians don’t understand this very simple principle, but since their audiences seem to laugh anyway, I guess they don’t have to.

~ by Jared on May 21, 2010.

One Response to “MacGruber”

  1. It apparently only made 4.1mill this weekend. Ouch.


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