Of all the Saturday Night Live sketches destined for movie adaptation, Will Forte’s MacGruber would seem to require the most expansion for its translation to the big screen. Like Robert Warshow’s famous, if limited, description of the western, the minute-long sketch, which always follows the identical pattern, is something of an “art form for connoisseurs” where the pleasure comes in the minor variations on the immutable setup. In every sketch, Forte’s MacGyver-like hero is locked in a control room with a pair of associates and has 20 seconds to defuse a bomb. Distracted by a different series of personal concerns that crop up in the ensuing conversation, MacGruber inevitably loses focus and the bomb detonates, killing everyone.
In adapting the skit into a movie, Forte, director Jorma Taccone, and co-writer John Solomon, briefly incorporate the signature setup during the film’s finale, but the element of the sketch from which they draw the most comic material is its hero’s general incompetence. Despite his vaunted reputation and his comically inflated list of accomplishments, MacGruber’s biggest contribution to the film’s central mission, at least until the climax, is to distract the enemy by dancing naked with a stick of celery shoved up his ass, while his far more competent underling, Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe) guns down the baddies. “There’s a difference between winging it and seeing what happens,” MacGruber explains to that underling, outlining his refusal to adapt any sort of workable plan before entering the fray, “and we’re going to see what happens.” When he does incorporate a strategy, the results often strike a winning note of comic absurdity as when he has his other underling (and love interest), Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig), dress up as a deceased (male) heavy, donning fake beard and mustache to attend a meeting with the enemy, while Piper, in his turn, dons MacGruber’s signature vest and flannel shirt.
The film’s other central gag is its hero’s anachronistic sense of style, a feeling of being out of place in time that’s both heightened and ameliorated by the film’s adoption of a 1980s Cold War thriller plot. Sporting his irrepressible mullet, driving a Mazda Miata, and crashing a party to the strains of Eddie Money’s “Take Me Home Tonight,” MacGruber’s the height of cool circa somewhere between 1986 and 1990. What’s less clear is his temporal relationship to the rest of the film’s world. While the date on a tombstone suggests that the film is set in the nominal present, and Piper acts and dresses like a man living in 2010, the international intrigue that stands as the film’s central narrative, which involves MacGruber in helping to prevent the detonation of a Russian warhead aimed at the White House while settling an old score with a nemesis who killed his fiancée on his wedding day, seems specifically to reference the decade in which MacGruber still seems to live.
Believed dead, hiding out in an Ecuadorian monastery for the last 10 years, special operative MacGruber is called back in to action by his old boss, Colonel Faith (Powers Boothe), at the film’s beginning, as the only man who can stop the evil Dieter von Cunth (Val Kilmer). (And, yes, there are plenty of puns on that villain’s last name.) But the hero’s decade-long absence from the world of American popular culture either explains too much or too little. If set in the present, MacGruber seems like he’s been out of commission for at least 25 years, while if considered in the context that the film’s narrative creates, his fashion sense should be right on the (Eddie) money. Still, the film’s sense of time is pretty elastic, the director playing fast and loose with temporality as it suits his (often very funny) comic purposes.
Less successful is the film’s rigid adherence to parodying nearly every aspect of the genre’s typical narrative trajectory, from the hero’s realization of his love for his leading lady and his fractured relationship with his boss, who initially disapproves of his “unconventional tactics,” to the concluding, lengthy slow-mo shootout. But while the movie’s incessant return to its mock plotting grows quickly tiresome, it does yield occasional comic highlights, as when a willowy Top Gun-style lovemaking session between MacGruber and Vicki set to Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings” is suddenly undercut when the music rapidly halts along with the dissolve-based editing and we’re left watching and listening to our hero crudely pound and grunt away at his woman. Later, the premise is repeated with even greater comic results when MacGruber visits his ex-fiancée’s grave and, imagining her ghost, begins tenderly making love to it. Cue the Mr. Mister. Taccone then gives us a POV shot of a graveyard attendant and we’re left with the sight of the bare-assed Forte humping dry air.
Like many a contemporary lowbrow comedy, MacGruber‘s at its best when it’s most vulgar, when its foul-mouthed and essentially insane hero is free to indulge in his signature bits of raunchy whimsy. Whether it’s casually working in crude confessions amid deadpan recitals (“She’s the first girl I felt comfortable enough with to let eat out my asshole” MacGruber tells Piper, Forte’s earnest delivery rendering the otherwise off-putting admission comic), explaining gross-out terminology (“upper decker”), or manically offering up sexual favors when desperate for help (“I’ll suck your dick. I’ll let you fuck me…I’ll fuck something. Tell me what you want me to fuck. Tell me what you want me to fuck!”), Forte’s crudeness is his greatest asset. Dryly serious or tortuously hysterical, the actor has the range and energy to keep things perpetually lively, so that when the film’s central gags (MacGruber’s ineptitude, his anachronistic style, the parody plotting) begin to wear thin, Forte pulls out one more bit of inspired vulgarity and, like the one his character is tenuously enacting on screen, somehow manages to keep the whole operation afloat.