Rearview Mirror: “MacGruber”

Love it or hate it, this SNL adaptation is unquestionably unpleasant to watch with your dad.

Welcome to Rearview Mirror, a monthly movie column in which I re-view and then re-review a movie I have already seen under the new (and improved?) critical lens of 2020. I’m so happy you’re here.


If somehow you’ve found your way to this article without ever having seen the original MacGruber sketches that aired on Saturday Night Live in the late aughts, allow me to quickly recap: Will Forte plays MacGruber, a flannel-wearing, mullet-rocking badass who, like MacGyver, makes “life-saving inventions out of household materials.” Each sketch finds him locked in a control room with an explosive set to detonate in twenty seconds, accompanied by a female co-worker, first Maya Rudolph, and then Kristen Wiig, whose job it is to keep track of the time, and another teammate played by the episode’s host. As MacGruber works through some kind of personal or interpersonal issue, he wastes too much time and the bomb goes off before he can defuse it. In 2010, the character got his own movie. And that movie bombed. Pun intended.

Ten years later, the feature-length incarnation of MacGruber has enough of a fanbase, apparently, that it’s becoming a show; Forte recently told Seth Meyers, who was a producer on the film, that the episode scripts are nearly complete and that MacGruber, the show, will eventually make its way to NBC’s new streaming platform, Peacock. For the record, I think the show could be good, and the old SNL sketches hold up really well. They’re fast and goofy, and Forte is just so funny. But about the movie…

It’s fine? It’s funny in parts and kind of boring in others? When I saw it in theaters, I was mostly uncomfortable because I was with my dad and there’s a fair bit of goofy sex and exposed butts (more on the butts later). When I watched it again this year, my main takeaway was that it reminded me of the fake Lethal Weapon sequel from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. MacGruber, distraught after a bad guy (Val Kilmer) blows up his bride (Maya Rudolph) on their wedding day, fakes his death and retires to a village in Ecuador. But when that same bad guy steals a nuclear warhead, he comes out of retirement to help the U.S. government steal it back. He teams up, and falls in love, with his former partner Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig) and Lieutenant Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe), a sharp shooter who plays by the rules.

During the get-the-team-together montage, MacGruber finds a muscle man working in an auto body shop, then disqualifies him after seeing that he’s gay. But if you watch the end credits sequence, that guy gets a happy ending. That’s about the only truly dated joke in the movie; it’s mostly dick stuff and action movie parody. Disappointingly, MacGruber doesn’t get around to much invention-ing; his big move is to create necessary distractions by waddling around pantsless with a stalk of celery wedged between his butt cheeks. It’s brilliant but don’t watch it with your dad. Equally great is the sequence where MacGruber has sex with his wife’s ghost—but, again, do not watch this movie with your dad. Or do, I don’t know your life.

Ultimately, I think there are two fundamental issues working against MacGruber, keeping it from being as fun as a comedy starring Will Forte should be. The first is casting. Val Kilmer and Ryan Phillippe aren’t funny, or at least, they aren’t here. Their characters aren’t given enough quirks; they don’t have room to play around or surprise the audience. In a world with Tom Cruise’s performance in Tropic Thunder, or Jude Law and Jason Statham in Spy, it’s not enough to just be a straight-laced actor willing to do a comedy. You have to really go for it, and they don’t.

Spy and Tropic Thunder lead me to the other underlying problem here. The action movie parody has been done a lot, maybe more than any other kind of parody. Contemporary reviews of MacGruber compared it to other movies based on SNL characters and sketches, but I think it’s more relevant to contextualize it among other spoof movies. The Naked Gun, Get Smart, even Austin Powers in a sense. Not to mention the many popular action-comedy hybrids that aren’t satirical but do make use of the genre’s tropes. (There’s an argument to be made that Brooklyn Nine-Nine is the final word on the topic but I won’t get into all that.)

Sketches don’t lose anything by being formulaic. Part of the joke of the SNL version of MacGruber is that it was so predictable; every scene ended with an explosion. But when an audience knows the beats of a genre so well, it’s hard to stay ahead of them for the length of a movie. Which might be why it’s best viewed in typical cult classic style: with friends, a little stoned. If you’re not paying close attention, the obvious bits aren’t so obvious, and the ridiculous bits are even funnier.

But this movie did make an important contribution to the satire movie canon, because it gave director Jorma Taccone a chance to get a handle on making features. Taccone, who had previously worked on sketches including MacGruber at SNL, is also one third of The Lonely Island. Six years after MacGruber, he and Akiva Schaffer co-directed Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, a send-up of behind-the-scenes music documentaries in the age of Justin Bieber. P:NSNS, like MacGruber, flopped at the box office, but the difference is that it’s a really, really good movie. Not cult-funny, not ironic-funny, not mediocre-movie-featuring-a-standout-performance-funny. Genuinely, deeply, truly funny. Like, one of the best comedies of the past ten years. It needs no sequel or serial incarnation. It is perfect, majestic, untouchable, a gift to the world. And you can even watch it with your dad. FL

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