Parody only works when the people doing the jabbing have a genuine love for the very thing they're ripping apart. Often with parody you either get mean spiritedness; awful self-aware, wink-wink comedy; or a bad a mixture of both that just leaves a bad, snarky taste in one's mouth. Too often the entity that is Saturday Night Live produces failed attempts at catching lightening in a bottle with their over extended TV-parody-to-film adaptations that often leave the viewer wondering why they didn't just leave it to the small screen. These film adaptations of five minute sketches (which vary in humor) are often the latter definition of the aforementioned definition of parody. But now comes MacGruber and the polarizing – but hilarious – Will Forte, determined as hell (and I mean it, I don't know if I've ever seen a comedy try this hard to make an audience laugh at something) to be the first successful Saturday Night Live film since Wayne's World. And, hey, MacGruber is a man that can make something explosive out of contents found in a garbage can…I can't think of a better analogy to describe this film.
If you grew up on bad, C-grade action films that often found their home on late night ShowTime or Cinemax channels, and starring Dolph Lundgren, Jeff Speakman, or Michael Dudikoff, then you'll know the minute MacGruber starts why this film is so funny. Yes, let me say that again: this movie is funny. Damn funny. Oh, it walks a fine line between annoying and hilarious, but that kind of earnestness and determination to make me laugh got to me…in a positive way. It does help that I think Will Forte is a funny, funny man (many would disagree); and that co-star Kristen Wiig is probably the funniest and most talented female writer/performer to be on SNL in years (and yes, that includes Tina Fey); and it helps that I grew up on the aforementioned action film – often the favorite kind of rental my father and I would make on the weekends. MacGruber has the aesthetic of these films down to a tee, and a lot of the film's, er, charm, comes from the hilarious mise-en-scene (the hard key lighting in the cemetery where the light shines through the trees as MacGruber visits his wife's grave…in the rain of course, the lens flare, the low angle shots, the slo-mo shot of someone blowing up a car and not looking behind them…then putting their sunglasses on, and of course a finale that takes place in the "fan room") and the obvious love the filmmakers have for a genre that is no more.
The film also follows the generic, straight-to-video action film narrative arc (specifically the 1980's Cold War action film), which makes for a refreshing take on this kind of film. What I'm getting at is that these characters seem like characters in that type of movie. There's no winking at the camera going on here….yes, there are numerous jokes that are so absurd, dada-esque, and mindblowingly outrageous that you can't take the movie seriously; but, the film never stops to really point at the jokes. Much like Wayne's World – the last successful SNL movie – MacGruber is incredible (in a good way) in just how exhaustively jokey it is. It's 90 minute of (literally) non-stop jokes. There's something oddly admirable about that, and the fact that those non-stop jokes kept me smiling and laughing more than they did wincing. In fact, MacGruber's running time could have shed a few minutes and been just as funny in its economy; but nevertheless, the rapid fire pace of the jokes makes you forget about the one's that don't work – the truly groan inducing attempts at humor like a celery stick in the ass, eating said celery stick, countless penis-sucking jokes, and two sex scenes (one that has our two main characters silhouetted a la Top Gun, and the other with, yup, the ghost of MacGruber's dead wife) that go so far beyond the realm of comedy you start laughing because you don't know what else to do – and instead dares you to be prepared for the next onslaught of jokes lest you miss something.
MacGruber reminded me of the greatest of all genre parody films, Top Secret!, and I don't think it's any coincidence why director Jorme Taccone (of Lonely Island fame) cast Val Kilmer, star of Top Secret!, as the main villain. Kilmer is hilarious here hamming it up for the camera, and it reminded me of the fun he must have had working with the masters of the throw-every-joke-at-the-wall type comedies, Abrahams/Zucker/Abrahams. Kilmer plays Dieter von Cunth (and yes, MacGruber speaks with a lisp, so you can get a sense of the kind of joke this film consistently makes) and he has just obtained a nuclear weapon so that he can blow up Washington DC during the state of the union. MacGruber compiles an ace team – filled with WWE wrestlers, most notably Chris Jericho (!) – to stop Dieter. However, MacGruber accidentally blows them up in one of the films more inspired moments. Col. Faith (played by Powers Boothe who plays it so straight that I almost wasn't sure if he was aware he was in a comedy) and Lt. Dixon (Ryan Phillipe who does an adequate job here as the straight man) tell MacGruber if he can't compile another team, then his chance to get Dieter is over. MacGruber brings on Vicki St. Elmo (Wiig) to complete the new squad and we're off and running into one genre joke after another (again, reminding me of Top Secret!). Why does MacGruber want to kill Dieter (more specifically rip his throat out, since that's his specialty a la Road House) so badly? Why, because Dieter killed MacGruber's wife…on their wedding day of course!
MacGruber is filled with every kind of joke about every kind of action trope known in the genre. I swear some of the people who got up and left the theater at the screening I attended thought they were going into a legit action film. Now, that speaks to their lack of attention during the trailers that ran on TV, but it also speaks to how well the aesthetic resembles that of a C-grade action film (even the CGI blood is inspired). When watching a comedy where the most subtle joke is naming your villain Dieter von Cunth, then you know what kind of movie you're in for, and you either giver yourself to its "charms" or you find yourself annoyed by its constant need to be found funny (and I can see why people really dislike Forte). I found the film to be an inspired riff on a genre that has been long dead thanks to the pressing need by Michael Bay and J.J. Abrams and people of their ilk to make action films so serious.
Every montage (like any good training scene from a Jean-Claude Van Damm movie), the classic opening where the Army Brass must visit a far off village to find the unstoppable killing machine so that he can do one last job for his country (Rambo), the requisite scene of two guys shaking hands like they're getting ready to arm wrestle and the camera zooming in on their biceps (Predator, pictured above), every explosion (duh), the harshly lit and rain drenched exterior shots at the cemetery (any Tony Scott film), the sun drenched interiors where you can see the setting sun through the venetian blinds as the characters contemplate how they're going get the bad guy (again, Tony Scott), the gratuitous sex scene (again, duh), and the throat rippings (Road House)…they all felt inspired to me, and I have no shame in admitting that I laughed a lot during this movie. It's not a film for everyone, and I can't even blame those people who got up and walked out of the theater, but I found this to be pretty "classic MacGruber".