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Traditionally, Saturday Night Live spinoff movies are a dicey proposition. The good ones are few and far between. Most try to stay too close to the sketches that spawned them, and never make a case for spending ninety minutes with the characters. The idea behind MacGruber seems more shaky than most. Take very short sketches that riff on MacGyver, and stretch them into feature length. But there was some weird character background lurking in those short SNL appearances, and MacGruber takes the uncomfortable nature of the main character and injects it into a parody-slash-recreation of ’80s action movies.
MacGruber opens in theaters everywhere today.
The core of what makes MacGruber a more successful SNL spinoff than most is the main character trio. Will Forte is MacGruber, supposedly a world-class soldier who has been off the grid for many years. He’s called back into action when a nuke is stolen by Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer), but MacGruber may not be all the legend says. When a plan to get his old team of badasses back together goes awry, MacGruber teams up with Lt. Dixon Piper, a hotshot young officer (Ryan Phillippe), and Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig), a woman from his past.
The concept is essentially: what if an ’80s action star existed in real life, and what if he was an eccentric, fucked-up egomaniac? Forte nails MacGruber’s weird persona, which can quickly flip from teeth-clenched determination and utter self-confidence to pathetic, mewling manchild. Phillippe is straight man number one, essentially standing in for the audience. His job is to look at his team leader with frightened, disappointed awe — “how can this guy exist?” — and he’s quite good in the role. Wiig, meanwhile, wants to believe in MacGruber but just can’t. She’s great at combining hopeful, suggestible and weak.
Co-writer/director Jorma Taccone is great at capturing the look and spirit of ’80s action movies. You could easily mistake scenes in this film for something that is twenty-five years old. And when Taccone indulges in comedy that is based in the whacked-out personality of the main character (like a couple of great love scenes, and the explanation of the rivalry between MacGruber and Cunth) the film sings.
Other places, the comedy doesn’t fare as well. “Cunth.” That’s funny, right? Say it a dozen times. Still funny? While the character work here is great, and goes to some ugly, unexpected places, elsewhere the script isn’t as inspired. A lot of the dick and bathroom jokes feel, appropriately, like throwing shit at the screen in the hopes some will stick.
But there’s enough here to make the film a more satisfying prospect than most other SNL-related films. And if you love the original sketches, the climax is structured in that format. It doesn’t call too much attention to itself, but if you’ve got to nod to the character’s origin, that’s a great way to do it.
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