My Slate colleague Jonah Weiner published an article in the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section last weekend on MacGruber (Universal Pictures), an action comedy based on the ongoing Saturday Night Live skit of that name, in which the creators speak with sincerity and passion of their desire to break the SNL-inspired movie formula—to do something really different. "The first thing we thought was the first thing everyone must think: How can we possibly pull this off?" asks Jorma Taccone, the film's director and an SNL writer who originated the MacGruber character. John Solomon, another SNL writer who co-wrote the movie with Taccone and its star Will Forte, adds, "I think this movie is going to surprise a lot of people."
Having now seen MacGruber, I find these comments both funnier and more touching than anything that happens in the movie. In fact, the MacGruber team's firm belief that their movie is going to be awesome recalls nothing so much as the unshakable and completely unfounded self-confidence of MacGruber himself. The character, as embodied on big screen and small by Forte, is a blustering but incompetent action hero whose supposed expertise in bomb defusing inevitably ends in a giant (stock footage) fireball. Like Wile E. Coyote, he's blown up in every episode, only to reappear in the next with his self-esteem undented. It's a concept that appeals by virtue of its slightness and absurdity. The likelihood of this one-joke goof surviving the jump to feature-film format is as slim as the chance of MacGruber successfully disabling a bomb.
The late-night sketch version of MacGruber lives in a blissfully context-free universe: We don't need to know who set the bomb and why, only that the timer is ticking. But in a full-length feature, MacGruber needs a back story, an antagonist, a romantic interest—all of which are supplied, laboriously, in the movie's opening act. The back story: After serving his nation in countless wars and espionage operations, MacGruber has withdrawn to a monastery in Ecuador, determined to live as a man of peace. The antagonist: Dieter von Cunth (Val Kilmer), a rogue evildoer who's come into possession of a black-market Russian missile and is ready to aim it at Washington, D.C. The romantic interest: Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig), an old friend of MacGruber's who's been pining for him since she witnessed his bride-to-be (Maya Rudolph) get blown up at their wedding. MacGruber's former boss, Colonel Faith (Powers Boothe), coaxes him to abandon monastic life, put together a team, and "pound some Cunth"—a joke that you'll get plenty of opportunities to hear again if you miss it the first time.
MacGruber assembles a band of brawny thugs with names such as Vernon Freedom, Tug Phelps, and Tanker Lutz (many of them played in cameos by star wrestlers). But in one of the movie's better sick jokes, the entire team is blown to bits when MacGruber does a poor job of packing explosives in the trunk of their van. After begging the general to keep him on the mission, he's forced to proceed with a reduced cohort: just himself, the reluctant Vicki, and lantern-jawed straight man Lt. Dixon Piper (Ryan Philippe). MacGruber has no plan per se—he's "not a plan guy"—but he just knows that if they can find Cunth and … get him somehow, everything will turn out OK.
Taccone takes full advantage of the film's R rating, cramming in maximal quantities of raunchy absurdity. Some of the sillier gags are so out-there that they actually work, like when MacGruber has sex with his dead wife's ghost against her gravestone, or parades naked in front of armed guards with a stalk of celery up his butt "to distract them." But the script isn't dense enough with jokes, good or bad, to get the viewer through the longueurs of the plot. The action climax, which involves a high body count, a lot of realistic-looking gore, and at least one desecrated corpse, takes the cheerful black humor that's MacGruber's stock in trade to a queasily uncomfortable place.
The funniest moments in Magruber aren't exactly jokes, but stylistic nods to the '80s action genre that this movie intermittently spoofs. Though the story takes place in the present day, both MacGruber and Vicki appear to exist in a perpetual Reagan era, where mullets, puffy vests, blue eye shadow and Toto's "Rosanna" constitute the cutting edge of cool. A sex scene in which the hero and heroine make tasteful, backlit love to the strains of Mr. Mister's "Broken Wings" ends abruptly with an unromantic, soundtrack-free shot of MacGruber straining and grunting away.
If you don't go in expecting a Tropic Thunder level of joke density, you may be fine with MacGruber's one-decent-laugh-per-scene ratio. But there's a conceptual flaw at this movie's heart: By the very nature of the sketch, MacGruber can't succeed on the big screen. The SNL skits get laughs from combining the grandiose scope of an action movie with the cramped, bare-bones stage of a live late-night comedy show. It's funny because it looks dinky, cheap, and fake. By showing real buildings really exploding, and real throats—or a believable simulacrum thereof—ripped open by real bare hands, MacGruber commits the deeply MacGruber-esque mistake of shooting itself in the foot.
Slate V: The critics on MacGruber and other new releases