Matt: The original MacGruber sketches on Saturday Night Live were laughably cheap-looking—and reused the same three-walled “control room” set over and over—but the MacGruber movie has an impressive visual polish, particularly for its $10 million budget. The film’s cinematographer, Brandon Trost, who’d previously worked with stylish directors like Rob Zombie and Neveldine/Taylor, gives MacGruber a sheen of action-movie legitimacy. The opening scene, an ambush in a Russian desert, is basically indistinguishable from its equivalent in a serious thriller, which makes the appearance of Will Forte’s laughably incompetent MacGruber that much more amusing. MacGruber is a ridiculous character, but he’s even more ridiculous in such handsome surroundings. Here at The Dissolve, we’ve frequently complained about the complete lack of interesting visuals in modern Hollywood comedies. In that regard, MacGruber is a refreshing change of pace. Do you guys have any particular visual highlights?
Nathan: I would go so far as to say that much of the film is visually indistinguishable from a serious thriller. That is one of the things I love about it. The music MacGruber director Jorma Taccone makes with Lonely Island makes a point of perfectly replicating the sound and style of whatever it’s riffing on, which makes those albums work as both music and comedy. There’s a similar dynamic at play here, where even if you aren’t on board with Forte’s unique sensibility, the film hits the action-movie beats with such loving aplomb (montage after montage after montage) that it’s possible to enjoy it just on an action level (a goofy, goofy action level). I loved the montages in particular, but my favorite might just be the photo montage of MacGruber being a cheap bastard on his wedding day. Even on the happiest day of his life, he can’t stop being a small-minded prick, and the filmmakers found a particularly clever way to convey that.
Genevieve: I’m glad you brought up Taccone, Nathan, because with apologies to Brandon Trost, I think he deserves a lot, if not most, of the credit for MacGruber’s style (as well as the character itself, which he created and co-wrote with Forte at SNL). Along with fellow non-Andy Samberg Lonely Islander Akiva Schaffer (who’s also credited as an executive producer here), Taccone has directed many of the group’s music videos and is responsible for the Lonely Island visual aesthetic, which is distinguished by its blend of reverence and irreverence toward the genres it’s spoofing. One of my favorite aspects of MacGruber is how it gleefully indulges in the aesthetic tropes of the action-movie genre, and then pulls back into reality, highlighting the silliness of those tropes. See: the montage of MacGruber unveiling his flashy car to the grimy strains of The Black Keys’ “Heavy Soul,” then immediately switching the radio to a less montage-friendly, but much more MacGruber-friendly song: Toto’s “Rosanna.” Or the way the movie handles its two hilarious sex scenes, which both start out in the soft-lit, uber-romantic style of Top Gun (or perhaps The Room) and the like, then pull out to show MacGruber angrily grunting and thrusting his way through his final throes. Much of the success of the latter gag depends on how Will Forte sells it—and he definitely sells it—but the disparity between cinematic perception and uncinematic reality is straight out of the Lonely Island playbook.
Scott: The slick style of MacGruber not only distances it from the SNL sketch, but from MacGyver as the primary source of inspiration. Yes, Forte still has the Richard Dean Anderson mullet and sunglasses, and he improvises explosives out of seemingly benign household items. (Which backfire spectacularly. One of the great gags in the movie is how MacGruber—and Taccone—spend so much time gathering beefy tough guys for the job, only to lose them all to a van packed with homemade C-4.) But the film’s true stylistic template owes more to Top Gun or Die Hard or the countless other action vehicles with renegade dickhead heroes, warehouse shootouts, loose nukes, and/or Val Kilmer. We’ll talk later about the referential jokes—and the absurdist jokes, and the downright silly jokes—but the look of MacGruber acts as the consistent straight man in a movie full of off-the-wall humor.
The American Hero
Genevieve: MacGruber’s reputation both precedes and succeeds him; he is his reputation—and, as it turns out, little more. We’re told, via Ryan Phillippe’s Piper, that MacGruber is a Navy SEAL, Army Ranger, and Green Beret who served six tours in Desert Storm, four in Bosnia, three each in Angola, Somalia, Rwanda, Mozambique, and Sierra Leone, and received 16 Purple Hearts, three Congressional Medals Of Honor, and seven Presidential Medals Of Bravery (which, last time I checked, isn’t a thing). Oh, and he was the starting tight end for the University Of Texas El Paso. MacGruber’s ridiculously inflated résumé is a nod to the action-hero tropes the movie is spoofing, but it’s also the engine that drives the movie: MacGruber’s reputation as an American Hero par excellence is why the brilliantly named Colonel Faith (Powers Boothe) taps him to go after Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer), and why Piper and Vicki (Kristen Wiig) feel compelled to follow his lead as he “wings it,” despite all evidence suggesting that is a terrible idea. The idea that MacGruber is America’s Greatest Hero is especially hilarious in contrast to his spectacular incompetence and dumb luck, not only because it’s so incongruous to his behavior—“Just point at something, I’ll fuck it for you. Just tell me what you want me to fuck!”—but because it highlights the absurdity of the idea that being an American Hero makes someone more or less invincible and immune to criticism.
Scott: I love the bullet points in MacGruber’s résumé, especially the three Congressional Medals Of Honor. Having a hero’s achievements sounded off is one of the many action tropes the film picks apart. But even though the film was produced a couple of years into the Obama administration, MacGruber strikes me as the perfect bumbling hero for the George W. Bush era—full of irrational confidence and bravado. He throws himself into situations without an entrance strategy, let alone an exit strategy, and believes (not without cause) that things will work out just fine for him. Many of the laughs in the film come out of Piper’s incredulous reactions to MacGruber’s stupidity, which is not what he expected from a three-time Medal Of Honor winner. He gets by on the homemade C-4 of dumb luck and an “America, Fuck Yeah” attitude.
Nathan: Scott, I like the idea of MacGruber as a Bush figure; he certainly seems like the kind of guy who is forever rewarding himself with a “Mission Accomplished” banner before a mission has even begun. But I also see him as an exemplar of Tom Cruise-style, all-American, overconfident douchebaggery. It does not seem at all coincidental that he squares off against a much smarter, more accomplished character played by Val Kilmer (incidentally, can we get a little love for his appearance here?) and triumphs, despite being a raging asshole who continually puts his own selfish desires above everything—the lives of his team, especially. Movies like Top Gun and Days Of Thunder try to get you to cheer for their heroes even when they behave like insufferable jerks; MacGruber, God bless it, goes out of its way to make its hero as unsympathetic and borderline-sociopathic as possible, and is much more lovable because of it.
Scott: Nathan, the image of Tom Cruise in Top Gun and George W. Bush with his “Mission Accomplished” banner are easily reconciled, given that Bush chose to fly onto an aircraft carrier for this bit of stagecraft. Downing MiGs, prematurely declaring the end of major combat operations in Iraq: Both are classic MacGruber.
Matt: On the surface, it seems absurd to call MacGruber a “political film,” but on this rewatch I also wondered whether MacGruber’s combination of bluster and stupidity was intended as a subtle critique of Bush-era military policy. Team America came to mind for me, too, particularly during the opening credits, when the camera flashes on a newspaper headline that reads “MACGRUBER FOILS TERRORIST PLOT, KILLS 200 IN THE PROCESS,” which reminded me of the way Team America saves Paris from a major catastrophe at the cost of many of its major landmarks. There’s also something strangely American in his hilariously excessive destruction of Cunth as well. It’s not over until he throws him off a cliff and shoots him 50 times and explodes him and pisses on his remains. Mission accomplished!
Nathan: Scott has already talked about how making a MacGruber movie pushed beyond the somewhat limited premise of making it a fairly direct spoof of MacGyver, a silly 1980s action show that by the time the film came out was already remembered primarily for inspiring MacGruber. The film dramatically widened the kinds of pop culture the filmmakers could address. Accordingly, MacGruber often feels like an ironic love letter to the 1980s, from the hair and clothing to the maudlin synth-pop ditties of Vicki St. Elmo, who specializes in a form of music and emotion that had never really been fashionable, but certainly hadn’t been commercial in ages. It’s a collection of conventions lovingly deconstructed and ridiculed, from the team-assembling montage to the wonderful scene where MacGruber publicly taunts Cunth in ways that are flashy and action-movie-friendly, but also wildly counterproductive. Just about the only reference I didn’t think worked entirely was the early riff on Rambo III, which felt a little mothballed even for a movie this immersed in the 1980s. Were there any references/spoofs you particularly enjoyed, or felt detracted from the film as a whole?
Genevieve: I’m not especially well-versed in the genre being spoofed here, so a lot of the specific references—like that Rambo III riff—just registered as “generic silly ’80s action movie” to me. And that’s totally fine—in fact, it’s preferable that these sorts of gags work independent of their source material. (Though I didn’t find that particular gag that funny, either, Nathan, and it contributes to my one major criticism of this movie, which is that it takes a little too long to hit its comedic stride.) In general, the overall 1980s-ness of MacGruber’s world tickled me, especially by contrast with the modern-day world around him. Along these lines, one of my favorite recurring gags isn’t a specific reference that I’m aware of, nor is it even a particularly “’80s movie” touch, but it’s the sort of detail that only works within the specific temporal framework MacGruber is working in: MacGruber’s Blaupunkt car stereo, which he faithfully ejects and totes around with him on every step of his mission. It’s such a wonderfully specific and silly character detail, and it only works because MacGruber himself is so firmly entrenched in a specific era, even if the movie as a whole isn’t necessarily.
Scott: As Genevieve says, the film’s visual template is “generic silly ’80s action movie,” which liberates it from having to make jokes off familiar, obvious reference points. Wet Hot American Summer operates in a similar fashion: If you just get the ambience right, the look and feel of the film will carry the gags across. Plus, if MacGruber were a straight spoof, we wouldn’t get random acts of weirdness like Cunth’s nude portraiture. (“More water.”) And who wants that?
Nathan: Scott, there is one very pointed reference to MacGyver late in the film: MacGyver famously refused to use guns for what I can only presume were moral as well as practical reasons. (Full disclosure: I did not make much progress in my plans to go through my entire box set of MacGyver to prepare for this Movie Of The Week discussion.) MacGruber similarly eschews firearms, but when he finally uses one here, he fucking loves it. He’s instantly transformed into a zealot for guns, a neat and subversive inversion of the original hero’s ethos.
Matt: My favorite obscure reference in the movie: The giant poster of Ronald Reagan on the wall of Col. Faith’s office. It just seems like a random, outrageous touch of production design, but it’s actually a nod to Sylvester Stallone’s 1986 cop film Cobra, in which Sly’s character, a Dirty Harry-esque police enforcer with almost no regard for the rule of law, has a huge portrait of President Reagan hanging in his office. I love that this thing that was intended with absolute sincerity just 28 years ago now looks completely absurd. (I also like that the Reagan painting watches on, with that big smile on his face, as MacGruber offers to fuck Piper, or any inanimate object in the room, in order to convince Piper to join the team.)
Scott: MacGruber is only the latest of a number of offbeat comedies that were critically reviled and bombed at the box office, but earned a passionate cult following down the line. Others off the top of my head: Pootie Tang, Wet Hot American Summer, and Hot Rod, the latter directed by Taccone’s Lonely Island rap-mate Akiva Schaffer. I’ve taken to calling these movies “dog-whistle comedies,” in that they don’t resonate at all for large swaths of the moviegoing public, but ring in the ears of those who are on their wavelength. Had MacGruber been a straightforward MacGyver or Top Gun parody in the broader Hot Shots style, perhaps it would have reached a wider audience. But much of what makes it great to fans is odder and more specific: For example, the way Taccone spoofs the language of the action movie, from the music cues to the heavy back-lighting to the macho silliness of the getting-the-team-together sequence (“You and your dick comments.” “It’s fun to say them.” “It’s fun to hear them,” et al.), relies on the audience knowing these tropes and rolling their eyes at them. Then there are the flat-out strange moments, like MacGruber making noisy love to his wife’s ghost. This was never going to be a hit, was it?
Nathan: It never was, Scott, and a lot of what I love about MacGruber is what a deliciously non-commercial, perverse proposition it was. For starters, Saturday Night Live hadn’t put out a movie in ages, and the public wasn’t exactly clamoring for a return to the days of It’s Pat and A Night At The Roxbury. The Saturday Night Live character didn’t even appear in full sketches, just 30- to 60-second snippets where he generally died due to his incompetence and greed. Beyond all that, he is a super-creep in a sketchy 1980s mullet. MacGruber really gives the sense that Forte, Taccone, and their gifted collaborators are getting away with something, because the budget and the expectations were so low, and the character was already so weird and culturally specific, they could pull off the kinds of crazy, conceptual, comedy-writer gags of which box-office flops/cult classics are made.
Matt: I saw MacGruber for the first time at South By Southwest, at a sold-out screening at Austin’s Paramount Theater. Granted, this was an excited film-festival crowd, and the stars and creators were in attendance, but the audience absolutely ate the film up, erupting with huge gales of laughter throughout. You would have thought, given the response, that the movie was going to be a blockbuster, but that was not in the cards. As I mentioned yesterday in my Keynote, even if you like the MacGruber sketches, you kind of have to concede that a MacGruber movie just sounds like a bad idea. (Particularly, as Nathan notes, from the folks at SNL, whose recent cinematic track record ranks only slightly ahead of Uwe Boll’s.) In my mind, that’s part of the film’s charm. Who would green-light this movie from these people? Who would sign off on this screenplay? Who read the part about the celery up Will Forte’s ass and thought, “Yeah, this is definitely going to connect with the target demo”? I am mystified by this movie’s existence, and I love it all the more for that reason.
Scott: I had the same experience recently with They Came Together, the latest from Wet Hot American Summer director David Wain. A full house at the Chicago Critics Film Festival, with Wain in attendance, laughing so hard that I probably missed half the jokes. Then it opened quietly to middling reviews and a halfhearted VOD-centered release strategy. Onstage, Wain said that they screened it for a random multiplex test audience and got crickets. I think it’s history repeating itself.
Genevieve: Matt I feel like that particular SXSW screening has affected most of what I’ve heard about the movie in the ensuing years. Along with you, comedian Doug Benson was in the audience at that screening, and he ended up being a huge advocate of the film when it was released, even after it flopped. I heard Benson talk several times about the film on his own podcast, Doug Loves Movies, as well as other podcasts, including The Nerdist, and I think his enthusiasm has spread throughout the comedy community over the years. Even though I hadn’t seen MacGruber before this discussion, and was well aware of its status as a flop, I feel like I’ve been hearing about it as an underrated gem pretty much from the moment it came out.
Which isn’t to say it’s already achieved universally beloved status: I had several friends reply with some variation of “Ugh, really, why?” when I told them we were watching this film for Movie Of The Week. But as with most cult films, that popular perception is all tangled up in its under-the-radar success. People don’t feel compelled to advocate for films that are universality beloved; they want to prove the haters wrong, which I think is why MacGruber’s reputation has slowly but surely improved over the years, as people do what I’ve done several times this week and tell their friends, “Just give it a chance, trust me, it’s awesome.”
Matt: I found the script for MacGruber online; it’s generally pretty close to what they shot, but there are a few excised jokes I wish they’d included. In the movie, MacGruber turns down Faith’s offer, then has a nightmare about his wedding where Cunth kills Casey, which inspires him to leave his home at the Ecuadorian monastery and return to active duty. In the script, when he wakes from the nightmare, he throws a kerosene lamp at the picture of Cunth he keeps taped to his wall, which starts a fire that burns the entire place down. On the Blu-ray commentary for the film, Taccone mentioned that wanted to shoot that scene, but just couldn’t afford to on their budget. One can only imagine the insanity they would have produced if Relativity had given them more than $10 million.
Before our own MacGruber-esque team of heroes is scattered to the wind, I want to ask: Are there any other highlights we forgot to mention so far? And another important question: Where do you put MacGruber among the ranks of SNL movies?
Nathan: I would rank it fairly high. For tomorrow’s feature on the history of SNL movies, I was lucky, in that I got to write about three of the smartest and most accomplished: Blues Brothers, Stuart Saves His Family, and MacGruber, projects that aspire to be real movies and have a point of view and an agenda beyond extending a catchphrase into a lucrative new medium. It’s a movie from the first frame to the last, and if it’s the final product of SNL Studios, at least they went out on a high note (and a note that will appeal greatly to people who are high).
Genevieve: This may simply be the thrill of discovery speaking, but at this point I’d put MacGruber on a level with Wayne’s World as my favorite SNL-derived movie—which, as we’ll see with tomorrow’s feature, isn’t an especially distinguished bunch, so that’s not saying much. But honestly, having only seen a “MacGruber” sketch on SNL once or twice in passing, very little about this film registered as “an SNL movie” to me. Part of that may have to do with the fact that SNL movies haven’t been a going concern for about a decade, so it feels more like an anomaly than part of that specific brand. But also, as we’ve established many times throughout this forum, MacGruber has a specific visual style and comedic sensibility that I don’t really associate with movies like, oh, let’s say The Ladies’ Man. If anything, this feels more like a Lonely Island movie, or perhaps an “SNL Digital Shorts” movie.
Before we wrap this up, I feel like I have to give it up for Will Forte, who’s always struck me as a sort of all-purpose funny guy without a particularly distinctive style, but is a total star here. This is a very clownish role, but he finds a lot of nuance in MacGruber’s over-the-topness, from the overly confident catchphrase-spouting boob to the sniveling little weasel, and all points in between. I’ve totally come around on MacGruber, a character I previously considered a one-note parody, and that’s thanks in large part to what Forte does with the role outside the constrictions of a 90-second sketch.
Scott: Much as I scoffed at the very notion of a good MacGruber movie, I’d probably put it at the very top of SNL adaptations. At a minimum, it’s the one SNL-to-screen adaptation to take a mostly one-joke sketch idea (e.g. “It’s Pat” or “The Roxbury Guys”) and successfully expand and reconfigure it for the screen. And while I’m here, I’ll echo the praise for Forte’s performance, which is committed and fearlessly self-deprecating. After all the things he does in this movie—the loud back-to-back sex scenes, the celery stick, the “just tell me what you want me to fuck” scene—he can probably bid farewell to any Al Franken-like political aspirations he might have had.
Our Movie Of The Week discussion of MacGruber kicked off yesterday with Matt Singer’s Keynote on the film’s trajectory from box-office bomb to cult sensation in the making, and continues tomorrow with our By The Numbers feature breaking down the canon of Saturday Night Live films, one chart at a time.