Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Film Review: MacGruber

"You've got to respect a man so committed to his car stereo."
Note: This is an expanded version of a review I originally wrote for BoxOfficeProphets.com, a really great website full of terrific, up-to-date analysis of the latest movies, and home to my regular column, "Things I Learned From Movie X." Okay, plug over.

The history of movies based on Saturday Night Live sketches is checkered, to say the least. For every Wayne's World and Blues Brothers, you have a Coneheads, Blues Brothers 2000, A Night At The Roxbury, It's Pat, Stuart Saves His Family... Okay, maybe the history of SNL movies isn't so much checkered as it is one deep, dark pit of anti-comedy with maybe two or three beams of light shining through the gloom, barely justifying the existence of the rest. Thankfully, MacGruber can be added to that list of lights, even if it's one that flickers on and off.

So, the story goes that ten years ago, MacGruber (Will Forte), super detective, master of improvised weaponry, throat-ripper extraordinaire and gifted lover, watched helplessly as his beloved wife (Maya Rudolph) was murdered by the despicable Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer, firmly ensconced in the Fat Elvis stage of his career). Having spent the past decade in a monastery battling his angst, MacGruber gets a chance to get revenge and save the world when a U.S. Colonel (Powers Boothe, regrettably sans moustache) tells him that Cunth has stolen a nuclear weapon and MacGruber is the only one who can stop him. And he will stop him using as many swear words and as much scatological humor as it takes to get the job done.

Setting aside for a moment the less than illustrious pedigree of Saturday Night Live films and the fact that the key reference point for the character is MacGuyver, a TV show that has been off the air for almost twenty years and is now probably best remembered for inspiring dozens of Patti and Selma gags on The Simpsons, I think that it's worth establishing what mindset I was in when I watched MacGruber. I was on holiday, so I was relaxed and not thinking too critically - though I don't generally try to over think movies that set out to be as silly as this one, unless there's something morally offensive about them - and I didn't go in with high expectations. Not because I thought that the film would be bad, but because, being English, I don't really know that much about modern day Saturday Night Live, so I wasn't familiar with the character. I went in to the theatre with very few preconceptions, and I enjoyed myself. I didn't come away thinking that it was a great revelatory comedic experience that everyone else just wasn't getting, but I enjoyed it as a silly, silly film.

Will Forte and his co-writers John Solomon and Jorma Taccone, who also directs, know that the character as he existed on television was not enough to sustain a feature length film, so they shift the focus to make the film a parody of action movies in general, a task which it is largely successful at. It's not in the league of Hot Fuzz or Team America: World Police (or even Team America's non-union, non-ironic Mexican equivalent, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra), but the film pinpoints its targets and hits them with just the right amount of force to keep things moving along, and Taccone does a good job of approximating the woozy, washed out look of modern action films. In particular the writers seem to have a real ear for taking faux-tough action movie dialogue and pushing it to a ludicrous extreme for comic effect, a trick which gets dull over the course of the film but, at least in the film's strong opening act, gets plenty of silly laughs. (The highlight: "I thought you were dead." "So did I, but I'm not.")

The other thing the film does really, really well is montages. Boy, do they love montages. In a deliriously silly example, we see MacGruber suit up by digging up the coffin that contains his old outfit, then dressing in the pouring rain and screaming at the sky. Later on, he assembles a team of muscled hard cases with names like Tut Beemer, Vernon Freedom, and Brick Hughes (all of whom he then accidentally kills when a bunch of homemade C4 explodes in their truck). The film's ace in the hole, montage-wise, is a brilliant sequence in which MacGruber and the film's token love interest (played with typical wit and low-key charm by Kristen Wiig) have sex in the sort of soft-focus, candle-filled setting that only exists in action films from the mid-to-late '80s. Still, that scene only really works because, after about 30 seconds of that soft-focus recreation, the film drops the gauze to show the two having the most awkward, least erotic sex you'll see outside of The Room. It's a shame that the film doesn't spend more time puncturing the cliches it toys with, rather than merely recreating them.

Though it's functional and occasionally inspired as an action-comedy, the best moments actually come from Will Forte and what he does with the MacGruber character. After the opening ten minutes, which are dedicated to showing how much everyone fears and respects MacGruber, Forte tries his hardest to make him into the least competent action hero imaginable. He's an incredibly arrogant, petty individual who takes an instant dislike to the soldier assigned to help him in his mission (played by Ryan Phillippe, who's great as the straight man to Forte and pretty much everyone else in the film) and there's a great running joke in which MacGruber, after being sworn at by someone in a car, memorizes the number plate and keeps muttering it under his breath as he plots the most extreme vengeance for this most minor slight. Based on this and his brief stint on 30 Rock, it's clear that Forte has a real skill for character comedy, and I wouldn't be surprised if he becomes a big star in a few years' time.

It's not in the league of Hot Fuzz or Beverly Hills Cop, both of which it has been compared to, but it's a pretty solidly entertaining comedy that makes good use of its cast and a fearless performance by Will Forte, even if it falls apart as it heads towards its (literally) explosive finale. But at the very least, it's not It's Pat.