The history of films based on Saturday Night Live characters isn't a very happy one. In fact, the only one that is legitimately great is The Blues Brothers -- for my money one of the best musical comedies ever made.
Perhaps that's a clue to my indifference. I haven't thought SNL has been worth watching since the '70s, though it's been a launching pad for some excellent comedic talents in the interim.
As a result, I really knew nothing of MacGruber. I knew the character was inspired by the '80s television series MacGyver, a show about a secret agent who refused to use a gun and would cheat death with common household items, but I find spoof characters less than inspiring.
MacGruber's cinematic predecessors included a slew of films that either didn't age well (Wayne's World) or were never good to begin with (Night at the Roxbury), so for MacGruber to distinguish itself from its brethren shouldn't be a high bar to reach. I wasn't expecting much.
Perhaps MacGruber benefits from lowered expectations. While I like my absurdist comedy to be a little smarter than this generally is, when MacGruber is funny it's often brutally so. It's like that drunk darts player at the bar who is all over the board but hits the bulls-eye just enough to keep himself in the game.
You'll know what you're in for immediately, as our villain Dieter Von Cunth -- the 'h' isn't silent, but it's close -- (a bloated Val Kilmer) and his crew of bad guys steal a nuclear missile for use in a Machiavellian scheme that is sure to result in chaos.
Meanwhile, down in Ecuador, we find MacGruber (Will Forte), the former super spy, living as a warrior monk. MacGruber has been believed dead for a decade since he went into seclusion after a failed assassination attempt; Cunth tried to kill MacGruber during his nuptials to his girl, Casey (Maya Rudolph) -- leaving him wounded, and Casey blown to smithereens.
When the military wants to tap MacGruber to go after Cunth and the missile, MacGruber comes out of hiding and forms a crack commando team to thwart Cunth's evil scheme and get vengeance -- while finding his loyalty to his dead fiancée is tested as he falls for Vicki St. Elmo (Kristin Wiig).
Comedy is probably the most subjective genre of film primarily because an individual's sense of humor can vary so widely. Sometimes it just depends on what kind of mood you're in. Laughs that might come more easily if you're in a good mood (or better, drunk) might evaporate entirely for the same film if you see it when you're out of sorts.
MacGruber does score laughs -- I'd estimate I was in a good mood, though sadly not trashed -- with variable and raunchy consistency.
I sometimes felt guilty about falling for some of the lower brow gags but was just as often delighted by the more inventive ones. Kristin Wiig might have stolen the film with one scene where she has gone undercover as MacGruber in a restaurant.
While the real MacGruber is getting attacked, her reactions to what she hears on her earpiece as she acts like a lunatic amongst the crowd of diners was priceless.
Conversely, a running gag involving a car that cut off MacGruber's awesome Mazda Miata -- with its prized Blaupunkt removable cassette deck that's always blasting Styx, REO Speedwagon or Journey -- has an unexpected payoff when his partner, Lt. Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe) learns just how insanely narcissistic MacGruber really is.
It's very absurdist comedy, which is inherently hit-and-miss even at its best.
Written by Forte with long-time collaborators John Solomon and director Jorma Taccone, MacGruber adopts the Zucker Brothers template of throwing as many jokes at the wall as possible and seeing what sticks.
The result is a film that is, in essence, bad, but which still scored enough yucks to qualify it as a comedic success. Mileage, of course, may vary.
But it's not just that. MacGruber is sometimes genuinely demented to the point of being surreal -- I'm still trying to figure out why that puma growl they dubbed over every explosion is funny, it just is -- but that's what I meant about the subjectivity of it all. Also, the flick earns props for its surprisingly over-the-top violence in the service of laughs. Good call.
Performances are what you'd expect, and no one is taking things too seriously. Forte, who I've only really known from bit parts in other films, gleefully plays to the character's frustrating stupidity and self-centered nature. He's the kind of guy that slips on a banana peel, while inadvertently killing every enemy in sight, acting like that was the plan all along. Forte hams it up, making for some moments of cringe-inducing bravery.
Kristin Wiig steals the show though, as Vickie St. Elmo. Wiig, a sexy nerd if there ever was one, combines her bizarre comic sensibilities and well-tuned knack for physical humor, with the character's retro-Farrah Fawcett looks to craft a memorable turn that was surprisingly endearing.
Kilmer underplays Dieter Von Cunth to the point you might think he's phoning it in. He's not, though, as Kilmer's comic sense has always been subtly effective (to see that in peak form, check him out with Robert Downey Jr. in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). The notoriously touchy actor brings that under layer of smarminess that doesn't quite overpower that sense of fun most of the cast seem to project.
MacGruber isn't really a good film. In fact, I wouldn't even bother to recommend it at all if it hadn't succeeded at its most basic mission: Bring some funny. I've certainly seen worse. That might not be a ringing endorsement but still more of one than I ever expected to give it.
A Roll of the Dice
Populist movements like the Tea Party rise in the wake of the perception that the government, for whatever reason, is broken; that it is not representing the interests of the voters that put the politicians in power.
The current right wing discontent stems from the feeling that government is overstepping its bounds, while left wing populist movements of the past were born of the idea that the government wasn't doing enough to help the people most in need, and those to whom they are most directly responsible -- the electorate.
If I can identify one point -- and there is only one -- where the average hardcore Tea Partier and I would agree it would be this: We may disagree about whether the government should be governing more, but we all agree it shouldn't be helping itself.
Graft, corruption and the systemic environment where money and politics mingle are the underlying subjects of Casino Jack and the United States of Money, director Alex Gibney's exhaustive and compelling look at the rise and fall of convicted fraudster, Jack Abramhoff.
The documentary charts the beginnings of Abramhoff's career starting with his ascendency among The College Republicans, and the seminal relationships he formed there with other future right wing luminaries such as Ralph Reed, founder of the Christian Coalition, and anti-government loon Grover Nordquist.
As Abramhoff becomes more adept at finding questionable ways to fund Republican causes, he rises in stature amongst the political community, which he uses to ingratiate himself with Tom DeLay, the former Texas bug man -- and Dancing with the Stars contestant -- who went on to become the Republican House Majority Leader. DeLay was known not only for his rigidly ideological leadership style, starting the K Street Project to force lobbying firms to hire only Republicans, but for his ability to raise tons of cash for the party.
Ultimately, DeLay fell when he was caught up in the undertow of Abramhoff's conviction for defrauding Indian casinos of various tribes of millions of dollars.
Casino Jack pulls off the neat trick of conveying its complex and multi-layered tale, while maintaining a jaunty pace with its slick, expose-tinged presentation. More than just the details of Abramhoff's crimes, the film explores the political culture of the right, which almost seems purposefully conducive to corruption and human rights abuses in the quest for the free enterprise utopia that would surely arise if government just got out of the way.
Is it entirely fair? I don't know. The facts speak for themselves, as do many of the figures involved, including DeLay, as well as Bob Ney, the only sitting congressman who did jail time for his involvement with Abramhoff -- though Ney was hardly the only congressman at the time who could have been brought down for their ties to the con man.
Various other people and politicians, some intimately involved with the situation, offer their insight on the events, including Thomas Frank, the writer whose book, What's the Matter with Kansas? was adapted into the documentary of the same name last year.
While it doesn't paint a pretty picture of the political culture of the right, the film has enough input from both sides of the spectrum for it to feel fair, though it casts a mostly blind eye to the corruption on the left, perhaps because Abramhoff dealt mostly with Republicans. I used to joke that the level of corruption that the Democrats achieved after 40 years in power only took Republicans 10. That's efficiency in government.
Regardless, I suspect this will hit a chord with anyone disgusted by a system that is so rife with corruption by design.
And though there might be different ideas on how to fix it, Casino Jack is the kind of film that will get people talking about it. And that can't be a bad thing.
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