Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/21/10 10:43:45

"A Bigger (But Not Better) Bang"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

There are many problems with “MacGruber,” the latest attempt to build a feature film franchise out of a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, but the biggest one is that there is not a single joke in it that is as surprising, bizarre or weirdly amusing as the fact that it even exists in the first place. Unlike previous “SNL” films, which have taken popular characters and placed them in storylines that allowed them to have adventures beyond the limitations of a five-minute sketch, it takes a series of brief blackout sketches that all share the same basic set-up (an allegedly brilliant hero, inspired by the old TV show “MacGyver,” tries to defuse a bomb before its imminent destruction using common household items but gets distracted by some kinky or petty disagreement with the colleagues who are trapped in the room with him and the explosive) and punch line (KABOOM!!!)--like the structurally similar Aristocrats joke, the humor derives from all the weirdo stuff in between the two points. On TV, this can be quite amusing and even if it isn’t, it goes by so quickly by design that it is impossible to work up too much resentment for it but it is not the kind of thing that translates easily to the big screen and indeed, it is my fervent hope that when the film hits DVD, it includes a video of the pitch meeting in which the filmmakers somehow convinced the money people that it could make the transition--my guess is that the pitch was a lot funnier and more inventive than anything in the movie proper.

Because it would be impossible to literally do a feature-length version of an actual MacGruber sketch (though I have the strangest feeling that Lars von Trier might have one in him), “MacGruber” expands its comic horizons by serving more as a general spoof of the high-octane, low-intelligence action extravaganzas of the 1980’s in which there was no problem in the world that couldn’t be solved by one brave man with a luxurious head of hair and the ability to blow things up at will without messing up a single hair in the process. For our purposes, that man is MacGruber (Will Forte), a lavishly decorated military type who is widely considered to be “the best” (though the number of Purple Hearts that he has been awarded might suggest otherwise) but who has isolated himself in a monastery in Ecuador for the last ten years since his bride-to-be (Maya Rudolph) was mysteriously blown up in the middle of their wedding. When his former commander (Powers Boothe) arrives with a plea for his return to help recover a stolen nuclear missile, he refuses but when he learns that the man suspected of the crime is the nefarious Dieter von Cunth (Val Kilmer), the very same person he believes blew up his nuptials, MacGruber agrees to come in out of the warm and assemble an elite team of super-warriors to save the day. Needless to say, this plan immediately goes gunny--who the soldiers are and what happens to them I leave for you to discover--and MacGruber is left with by-the-book soldier Lt. Dixon Piper (Ryan Philippe) and longtime associate/human target Vicki St. Elmo (Kristin Wiig) to help him save the day and look on incredulously as he does one dumb-ass thing after another.

With its combination of gross-out sight gaga, gouts of ridiculously unconvincing blood, explosions and jokes in which virtually every punchline includes some variation on the “F” word, “MacGruber,” despite its “R” rating, is a film aimed squarely at the hearts and minds of twelve-year-old boys. This is great if you are a twelve-year-old boy, of course, but not so much so if you aren’t. Since the film has no greater am than to be anything more than 90 minutes of silliness, I am not going to sit here and criticize it for being nothing more than a nonsensical comedy with a scattershot story and threadbare characters or talk about how it didn’t “work” for me as a viewer. This isn’t nearly as benevolent on my part as it sounds because there is still plenty of stuff to criticize. For starters, the notion of spoofing 80’s-era action epics is one that has not only been done to death over the years but which was never that great of an idea in the first place--part of the appeal of those movies was that they were already so ridiculously over-the-top in the first place that they already felt as though they were satirizing themselves--and the film not only fails to find a new way of approaching the material but never even bothers to make an attempt to do so in the first place. Another problem is that the timing of the material, a key element in any good comedy, feels way off all the way through--there are a lot of potentially hilarious jokes here that just never quite work because they run on too long and wind up running out of gas long before the payoff. The other big problem is that instead of using the freedom from the restrictions posed by network television to take the humor to truly wild and crazy places, the filmmakers have chosen to take the easy way out by making sure that every scene includes such low-rent material as the characters cursing like stevedores or running around with things sticking out of their hinders. (Of course, the name of the chief villain should have been an indication of the general level of humor on display here.)

To be fair, “MacGruber” does have some amusing jokes scattered here and there and both Val Kilmer and Powers Boothe find the right comedic approach for their characters--Kilmer is especially funny in the way that he seems to be channeling Steven Seagal at his logiest and you almost wish that the film had centered on him and made MacGruber the supporting role. If prodded, I would also have to admit that it isn’t the worst film inspired by an “SNL” sketch that I have ever seen, though that says more about the intrinsic qualities of those generally lackluster films (of which the only ones worth watching are “The Blues Brothers,” the first “Wayne’s World” and the wildly underrated “Stuart Saves His Family”) than it does about this one. The best thing that can be said about it is that it is so determinedly disposable that it is almost impossible to get too worked up over its failings as you might after watching the likes of “Robin Hood” or “Iron Man 2”--it is hard to get that mad over something that is doomed to an existence of round-the-clock showings on Comedy Central within a year or two. Then again, maybe KABOOM!!!!

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