Film >Sketchy comedy
A successful Saturday Night Live sketch has only one requirement: to convey a funny high-concept idea in a short amount of time. If it’s a good joke, people want more of it, and if there are buried levels of irony, pop-culture relevance and an X-factor mixture of pathos and earnestness (Wayne’s World, The Blues Brothers), the sketch can become an honestly credible feature-length film.
Will Forte’s sketch baby, a MacGyver send-up that imagines the man of action as an ineffectual, unstable thrill-seeker, barely meets the first two objectives – its core joke is decades late, and any nostalgic retro-pastiche the Richard Dean Anderson show might have held in American culture has been thoroughly used up already by The Simpsons and a 2006 Super Bowl commercial for Mastercard.
That leaves MacGruber somewhat orphaned, comically. Forte and co-writer and director Jorma Taccone (a visually talented member of the Lonely Island trio) seem to understand this and so, for the character’s self-titled foray into big-screen adaptation, they turn their attention to the rare kind of comedy that parodies a genre – in this case, action – while serving as a solid entry into the style on its own. Unfortunately, MacGruber fails to walk the line.
An unusual amount of time is wasted setting up the convoluted plot, in which MacGruber (Forte) returns from a sabbatical to exact his revenge on nemesis Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer) for the murder of MacGruber’s wife years ago. MacGruber easily recruits his old band of ass-kickers for the mission, only to be left alone in a mishap telegraphed from a mile away. His new team consists of a straight-laced military lieutenant (Ryan Phillippe) and his submissive flame who still holds a torch for him (the usually brilliant, but wasted, Kristen Wiig). They have no plan, other than MacGruber’s desire to “rip some throats out,” and only one clear objective: to pound some Cunth – a joke redeemable exactly once but reused over and over.
Forte and Taccone aren’t without their clever moments; their takes on ’80s Simpson-Bruckheimer specials like lite-rock soundtracks and (MacGruber’s best gag) artfully lit lovemaking scenes are knowing and hysterical. But they cling to these gags like trapeze artists clutching a high wire while the net of MacGruber’s stunt pieces falls away into a pit of anally obsessed juvenile humor and an odd malaise that permeates the second act as if the actors had been drugged.
MacGruber’s worst offense is that it ignores the very premise that made its sketch origins mildly popular to begin with. No longer is Forte’s action hero a MacGyver stand-in who might come through in the clutch if only he weren’t so distracted by inane conversation. Instead, the film gives us a downright insane, utterly unqualified stunted man-child who couldn’t fashion a bouncy ball out of rubber bands, let alone make a harpoon out of a rod and electrical cord (MacGyver season one, episode nine, according to MacGyveronline.com).
MacGruber’s advertisements make the self-proclamation that the film “makes The Hangover look like Beaches, a line better than any in the actual movie. What it actually accomplishes is to make Pineapple Express look like a success at everything they failed to achieve in MacGruber.