5 Thoughts On: MacGruber

January 25, 2010
By | 14 Comments

Last week, various sites began circulating the red-band trailer for MacGruber, a feature film based on the most popular (I guess) Saturday Night Live sketch of the moment.

5 thoughts:

1:  Admittedly, this movie looks worthwhile, and, to paraphrase Liz Lemon, I want to go to there as soon as it opens.

2:  I did not say I think this movie will be funny, but that it looks good.  Directors of SNL movies–often either Lorne Michaels’ in-house hacks (A Night at the Roxbury‘s John Fortenberry, Wayne’s World 2‘s Steven Surjik) or his mercenary cronies (Superstar‘s Bruce McCulloch, Stuart Saves His Family‘s Harold Ramis)–tend to favor the flat lighting and staging characteristic of live television sketches, and understandably so.  I’m not saying MacGruber director Jorma Taccone (the other cute one in Andy Samberg’s Lonely Island troika) is the next John McTiernan, but he’s clearly gussied up the flick a bit.  From an industrial perspective, MacGruber is a product of the post-Apatow world, where comedies can no longer drive in the middle lane and be content with a $40 million domestic gross.  Some big budget ‘splosions go a long way to playing up the action in the “action-comedy” tag, as does the casting of AB-list actors like Val Kilmer and Ryan Phillippe.

3.  There’s something more at work in the look of the movie.  The hacky-one-liners-delivered-amidst-kick-assery align with Taccone and company’s continuing love affair with the pop culture of the late 80s/early 90s, but it’s one that transcends mere parody.  What makes the Lonely Island’s comedy album Incredibad so enjoyable, for example, is the craft and care apparent in its production and songwriting.  They seem just as invested in re-creating genuinely fun music of the era as they do in saying “Wasn’t Color Me Badd silly?”  With MacGruber, I see the same balance of reverence and ridicule for the work of Mel Gibson, Steven Seagal, and, of course, Richard Dean Anderson.  This impulse was on display in 2008’s underrated Pineapple Express as well, a movie criticized for suddenly turning unfunny in its climactic shootout.  Good action movies with comedic elements are a dime a dozen; why can’t we try it the other way around?

4.  Also, ok, this movie looks funny.  Will Forte has been responsible for nearly all of the post-Weekend Update bizarro sketches worth remembering, and I think he’s got a talent for the absurd (see his work on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, for example) that goes untapped week after week by Seth Meyers’ writing staff of–if all the clumsy gay and fart jokes are any indication–11-year-old boys.  Bill Hader recently said MacGruber would be “a hard-R comedy,” an indication that the movie will go to places forbidden by broadcast regulations.  The R rating also expands the film’s story possibilities.  The most common knock on sketch-to-screen movies is the difficulty of adapting a sketch’s one-note-ness, when, actually, it’s the very quality that should allow creators to expand the premise anywhere they want to.  Films like Wayne’s World and The Ladies Man arrived onscreen with their characters and storyworlds rather fleshed-out in comparison to those of MacGruberMacGruber is just as much a recurring character as the other SNL characters-turned-movies, but its meme-friendly run time prevents the sketch from having to be the guiding narrative force for the film.

5.  Man, Val Kilmer looks terrible.



14 Responses to “ 5 Thoughts On: MacGruber

  1. Sean Duncan on January 25, 2010 at 7:48 AM

    Nice post, sir. I’m really glad you mentioned The Pineapple Express. Totally underrated flick.

    You mentioned action movies that are peppered with comedy (buddy cop movies like Lethal Weapon, Bad Boys, etc. come to mind), and how we need more comedy movies that veer into action. Couldn’t agree more, and I’d argue that the Wright/Pegg flicks (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) did this successfully. And perhaps first, at least in recent memory?

    I can’t tell you how many people I talked to thought Shaun of the Dead was a great movie up to the point where people start getting ripped apart and zombies shot in the face, or Hot Fuzz before it becomes a Robert Rodriguez movie. It seems to me that many viewers want their genre comedies to stay at overt wink-wink parody (especially SNL films), and aren’t able to deal when the film’s creators do more than make fun of a genre, actually reveling in the genre as well. These kinds of films, so far, seem to me to be primarily an opportunity for comedic filmmakers who are fans of specific genres (Wright, Taccone), but it’d be interesting to see if this subgenre (if that’s what it is) draws in more filmmakers who aren’t established in comedy (David Gordon Green).

    Oh, and poor Val Kilmer. Apparently, his brief shining moment as KITT didn’t do wonders for his figure.

    • Nick Marx on January 25, 2010 at 8:18 AM

      Right on re: Wright and Pegg. I only mentioned Pineapple Express first because there’s something about the British accent that makes me process the humor in Hot Fuzz with a different set of referents. But yeah, there’s definitely something different about this new-ish crop of comedians making comedies with ACTION, and I’m struggling to think of anything earlier than Shaun of the Dead/Hot Fuzz.

      • Derek Johnson on January 25, 2010 at 8:27 AM

        Beverly Hills Cop? Or is that not action-y enough?

        • Sean Duncan on January 25, 2010 at 8:34 AM

          I dunno, that seems different to me. I think Mickey Rourke and Sylvester Stallone were both originally courted to star, but after they dropped out, Murphy was brought in. So, that feels more like a retrofit to me: BHC originally was just another action flick that got turned into something comedic because of the casting?

          • Nick Marx on January 25, 2010 at 8:54 AM

            Good point Derek. I thought long and hard about all the 80s flicks MacGruber is parodying, and BHC is definitely an interesting case. But I’d have to agree with Sean, esp given BHC’s long path to become what it eventually became. Seems like more of an action flick that, over the course of production, increasingly came to accommodate Murphy’s rising star as a comedian. This might be bolstered further by the fact that Murphy went on to do mostly conventional comedies (and unconventionally dressed ladies). Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

            • David Gurney on January 25, 2010 at 9:52 AM

              Great post Nick, but in your comment, are you saying that Pluto Nash (or Chubby Rain for that matter) is a conventional comedy?

            • Nick Marx on January 25, 2010 at 10:37 AM

              Well played, Dave.

  2. Jason on January 25, 2010 at 11:17 AM

    Interesting take. I too was thinking of Pegg/Wright while reading this. But I wouldn’t frame it as action/comedy, but rather to pick up on your earlier point about “reverence/ridicule”–the reason Hot Fuzz and Shaun work so well is because they really do aspire to *be* the film they are parodying. They fully commit to the exigencies of the genre they’re spoofing, rather than just maintain a flat, ironic distance. Might we say the same thing about post-Reservoir Tarantino?

    • Nick Marx on January 25, 2010 at 12:29 PM

      Great point, Jason. This can certainly be expanded to people like Tarantino and beyond comedians. Ironic distance seems to be reversing its path a bit and coming closer to something like an embrace.

  3. Myles McNutt on January 25, 2010 at 8:57 PM

    While I doubt MacGruber will be nominated for any sort of award (although I probably would have said the same about Tropic Thunder, and then Robert Downey Jr. happened) in the same way that Lonely Island picked up a Grammy nomination, I think the comparison is most apt. The one thing that will be interesting is whether or not MacGruber could spread virally in the same way: Lonely Island tapped into the success of the Digital Shorts, and thus felt more like a logical extension of an online phenomenon as opposed to a sudden shift from one medium to another. Here, I wonder if the presumed lack of depth in “sketch comedy” will hurt impressions of a film derived from one: while Lonely Island was something new and exciting, MacGruber was all but written off until the trailer turned out to be not awful.

    Also, in terms of “Reasons we love Will Forte,” I’ll add Clone High to the list. Abe FTW.

  4. Annie Petersen on January 25, 2010 at 11:01 PM

    At the risk of insinuating continued sexism as concerns the world of humor and women’s place within it, how is it possible that this post — and ten comments after it — have managed to completely avoid even mentioning the presence, not to mention brilliance, of Kristen Wiig? For me, she’s the funniest part of this trailer. While a few scenes put her in Katherine Heigl/Leslie Mann straight-man position (for instance, she just has to stand there and react to the knowledge of the “upper-decker”) — she also gets the final line of the trailer, which we all know is where they place the bits they hope to get the strongest and most enduring laugh. Did I mention she’s really, really funny? And her name’s not Tina Fey?

    • Myles McNutt on January 26, 2010 at 12:06 AM

      I enjoy Kristen Wiig, but Saturday Night Live is currently on a feverish campaign to make me LOATHE her. She’s been front and center in the show’s creative black hole as of late, and the show’s desire to turn her into its star player has come at the worst possible time.

      • Nick Marx on January 26, 2010 at 9:12 AM

        Right on, Annie, and I agree with both accounts, actually. I’m a huge fan of Kristen Wiig and have especially loved her scene-stealing roles in a couple of forgettable movies lately (Knocked-Up, Extract), but like Myles says, SNL is really out to run her likability in the ground (Gilly, anyone?). I think they know she’s their only actor with mass appeal and versatility, and they’re steering her straight for the dreaded let’s-make-sure-we-get-a-best-of-DVD-out-of-her territory.

        RE: sexism in the world of humor, anyone have any thoughts on the film’s running joke that likely took it to “hard R” territory? Kilmer’s villain is named “Dieter Von Cunth”…

        • Sean Duncan on January 26, 2010 at 12:29 PM

          To bring this conversation full circle, she’s also going to appear in the next Simon Pegg/Nick Frost film, Paul, which is directed by Greg Mottola, shot in the US last summer and featuring all sorts of people from the current SNL and Apatow stable (Wiig, Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio, Seth Rogen doing voicework for the alien).

          It’s a small comedy world, after all.