MacGruber: Boldly Going Where No Celery Stalk Has Gone Before
Will Forte is perhaps the strangest man in Hollywood. His sketches on SNL are always sublimely silly—sometimes so silly that you don’t laugh the first time you see it, but later you find yourself thinking about it, and then the third or fourth time you see it, you’re in tears. Hopefully MacGruber will age that well…but I doubt it. MacGruber, while the funniest SNL film in at least a decade, is an uneven parody of 80s action films which by design finds the bizarre and immature hilarious. Sometimes they’re right—there are intermittent big laughs, but too often there are stretches where you sit and wonder why this film was made. Certainly it wasn’t made for the benefit of that celery stalk.
The villainous Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer) has hijacked a nuclear weapon, and the government has one solution: MacGruber (Will Forte). He walked away from it all after the tragic death of his wife (Maya Rudolph)—in a funny running gag, everyone he meets greets him with, “MacGruber! I thought you were dead.” He works alongside Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig) and Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe) as he attempts to, as the movie loves to say over and over, “pound some Cunth.” Meanwhile, you get plenty of 80s dialogue, music, montages, stunts, and, best of all, love scenes.
At the hands of Jorma Taccone, who co-wrote the grossly underappreciated Andy Samberg film Hot Rod, this could have been a master class in silliness (one wonders if Akiva Schaffer, fellow Lonely Island member and director of Hot Rod and many of the best SNL digital shorts, might have done even better). He brings an eye for the visual joke to MacGruber, where most of the biggest laughs aren’t dialogue-based. A running gag where he takes his car radio with him whenever he leaves the car begins as a silly throwaway, but by the twentieth time you see him do it, you’re howling. He understands the genre that he’s parodying, so little things like the look of a shot or the timing of a line delivery can get a giggle. He also has very game performers—Will Forte chews into every moment, and Kristen Wiig’s trademark throwaway delivery works here. My favorite performances were from Powers Boothe and Val Kilmer. Kilmer uses his underrated comic ability (see Top Secret as a reminder) and his heavy gravitas to absolutely nail Cunth, making him the funniest comedy villain in recent memory.
Unfortunately, the problem is the jokes themselves. Outside of a hysterical sex sequence, most of the big jokes don’t work very well. The example that most critics keep bringing up is MacGruber’s distraction technique of walking into enemy fire naked with a piece of celery sticking out of his… well, you get the idea. While Forte’s face as he waddles out gets a laugh, the actual joke really isn’t that funny. When Phillippe (who for the most part is outmatched in this film) says, “I will never ever do that,” you are just waiting for the moment in Ryan Phillippe’s career in which he comes out with a celery stalk jammed into a place that Ryan Phillippe likely never thought he’d have to jam a celery stalk. When Phillippe eventually passes away, I pray for his sake they don’t use that clip during the “In Memoriam” montage at the Oscars.
There are simply too many long stretches of time without a big laugh. Some jokes are too obvious to get the laugh, some are mishandled, and some are just poorly written. This may have also been a case in which the jokes used in the plentiful trailers and commercials spoiled some of the best surprises—if MacGruber had all of a sudden used Phillippe as a human shield, and we didn’t know that his character lived, it might have gotten a shocking laugh. Instead, the scene falls flat. Too many bits fall flat for the film to work as a whole… but there are enough big laughs that if you’re a Will Forte fan, it might be worth seeing. And while the film might grow funnier with time, I’m more inclined to think it has as much a chance of growing as that celery stalk.