Okay, so here's the biggest cinematic surprise of the year (unless Inception and / or Toy Story 3 ends up being a piece of shit): MacGruber, a Saturday Night Live production expanding a series of thirty-second sketches into an 89-minute feature, made me laugh my fucking ass off. I'm not talking about a few scattered, guilty chuckles, I'm talking about bellowing laughter straight from my gut. I'm still thinking back on jokes and guffawing here in front of my computer hours later. I'm sure the critics will sneer at MacGruber and I'm sure it'll bomb spectacularly at the box office, but here and now and for the record I'm gonna say that I dug this movie and think it's one of the best spoofs in ages.
I intentionally use the word "spoof" instead of "satire," because, no, I don't think that MacGruber is as good as Zombieland or Hot Fuzz, but I don't view those movies as spoofs. They're too self-aware for that label, loaded with explicit discussion of the genres they're skewering; commentaries as much as they are narratives. A spoof is something more like Robin Hood: Men in Tights or Austin Powers, not critiquing its genre so much as heightening every aspect of it into comic absurdity, and what the original Austin Powers did for classic James Bond movies MacGruber does for macho 80s action flicks starring guys like Stallone and Seagal and Chuck Norris.
It clearly announces this intention as the film opens with MacGruber's former CO finding him in self-imposed exile in a third world country and trying to convince him that he's gotta come back because he's the only man who can get the job done, a scene yanked directly, beat-for-beat from Rambo III. We proceed on to a hammy terrorist villain, a tragic backstory for our protagonist presented in clunky flashbacks, every single character greeting MacGruber with "I thought you were dead," characters crying out in anguish in epic slow motion, the hero's romantic interest tending his wounds, gratuitous sex scenes, cool guys walking away from explosions, and hands-down the single funniest twist on the "gathering the team" montage I've ever seen. It works beautifully precisely because of how straightly it's played outside of the title character — scenes with the military brass and the villains could almost be plucked out of actual 80s action films with barely an alteration.
The twist comes in the form of MacGruber himself cranking the macho posturing, the arrogance, the hubris and the bluster of the manly 80s action hero (very different than the post-Die Hard action hero, who would just as soon sit out the action and can bleed and make mistakes) to hitherto unprecedented levels not even close to justified by his actually quite limited talent as a hero. The contrast between the cartoon protagonist and the surprisingly straightforward 80s action flick around him is hysterical if you're familiar with the genre that's being goofed on. I don't normally think of Will Forte as a great comedic actor but he gives it his all as MacGruber and does a hilarious job mocking and paying homage to the macho action hero all at once.
While Forte does the heavy lifting, I like Kristen Wiig as his romantic interest just as much. I never watch Saturday Night Live outside of occasionally checking out the SNL Digital Short so I first became aware of Wiig not from the show but from her small part in Knocked Up, and she has quickly become one of my absolute favorite comedic actresses. She's very subtle, never needing to raise her voice or overact to win a laugh, and she needs her own star vehicle stat. Meanwhile, Powers Booth gives sincere 80s gusto to MacGruber's CO, Ryan Phillippe has the dry but necessary straight man role as MacGruber's partner, and Val Kilmer's admirably hams it up as the villain, Dieter Von Cunth.
Despite a bit of gunplay and bloodshed, MacGruber isn't a true action-comedy, not in the way that Kick-Ass is. It's a comedy with a few slapstick action scenes that take themselves no more seriously than the action in the aforementioned Austin Powers; none of it is in any way exciting or visceral and it doesn't aim to be. The movie's just a spoof, but it's a smart, aware, hilarious one, fighting the good fight in trying to rescue the genre from the clutches Aaron Seltzer & Jason Friedberg's "______ Movie" series.
It shouldn't come as any huge surprise in light of how funny MacGruber is that it's directed by Jorma Taccone, one-third of the comedy trio The Lonely Island alongside Andy Samberg and Akiva Schaffer who are collectively responsible for basically every watchable thing Saturday Night Live has done in the last decade not involving Tina Fey as Sarah Palin: "Lazy Sunday," "I'm on a Boat," "Jizz in My Pants," "Dick in a Box," "Motherlover," and every other funny Digital Short. Their ultra-modern, pop culture-infused and internet-influenced surreal sense of humor made Hot Rod one of the most underrated comedies of the last few years and it can be sensed here too. There's really no excuse not to just hand SNL entirely over to them at this point. Hell, that might even get to me to watch.
But however tepid Saturday Night Live may be these days they can at least be proud of this film, the best one to carry their brand name since Wayne's World back in 1992.
3 Stars out of 5