Those of us lucky enough to have seen Exhausted*, the 1981 John Holmes sycophant-umentary, may remember something the now world-weary director Julia St. Vincent, said on the DVD commentary. She described Holmes’ pursed lip expression during his moment of climax as one of his “monkey faces.”
Now as the title character in MacGruber, the adaptation of his reoccurring Saturday Night Live sketches, Will Forte doesn’t offer monkey faces exactly, but during his sex scenes, one of which is with his dead wife’s ghost, he offers a similarly ridiculous variation. Such excess is where Jorma Taccone’s MacGruber succeeds. When Taccone leaves behind the one note MacGyver parody that MacGruber was as a sketch and turns his movie into something energetically absurd, MacGruber becomes funnier than it has any right to be.
Of course Taccone’s reliance on parodying goofy 1980s action montages and music gets pretty tiresome early on, when MacGruber is nothing but a rather lethargic Rambo III parody, something that was funny as late as 1993 during the opening moments of Hot Shots: Part Deux. But once MacGruber shaves his long hair into a character appropriate mullet, Taccone, who along with Andy Samberg and Akiva Schaeffer make up the comedy troupe The Lonely Island, properly focuses on being totally unfocused in his comedic targets. The 80s theme probably seemed like it would work considering how surprisingly effective it was in Schaeffer’s Hot Rod. But in Hot Rod, Andy Samberg is more successful about being blissfully idiotic than Will Forte is in MacGruber. As a performer, Forte is only fearless to a point, hurt by his Saturday Night Live training to always let the audience know he’s better than the material. As he’s played in the movie, MacGruber is an abrasive character, but Forte just won’t let go completely, requiring specific set pieces, like a scene where he walks around naked with a stick of celery sticking out of his butt, to allow the silliness to embrace him. Saturday Night Live’s tendency to boil everything down to one joke and pound at the one idea for five or six minutes makes their performers lazy and stagnant. There’s no spontaneity and the same is true of MacGruber as a movie, as long as Forte is front and center.
Luckily, Taccone got a real pro at being a ham to be the villain. Val Kilmer, who oddly enough played John Holmes in Wonderland, takes an underwritten part and a character given a filthy name (Dieter Von Cunth) and plays it up as much as possible. Generally, the villain in a SNL inspired film, such as Rob Lowe in Wayne’s World, is even less than the straight man to the surrounding goofiness, he is often tonally wrong and totally in the way, bringing all his scenes to a halt as if he were in a standard drama. Kilmer, even in sequences designed to set up the story (as MacGruber’s arch nemesis, he wants to blow up… things and people), relishes lines such as where he asks aloud “have you ever been to D.C.?” His henchman begins to answer and Kilmer impatiently utters, “I was talking to the missile.” Kilmer saves MacGruber from being just another SNL movie with a nasty case of the cheaply shot Canadian film (though it was mostly shot in Kilmer’s home state of New Mexico, regardless MacGruber is ugly looking and shoddily photographed) and an unfortunate predilection for obvious gay panic jokes.
Kilmer’s influence is so important in getting us past the many slow parts of MacGruber, that Forte has a sufficient amount of time to convert his haphazardly put together vanity project into an amusing mix of Austin Powers nonsense and the “idiot-braggart in over his head and saved by his cohorts” of Big Trouble in Little China. By the time the second half of MacGruber arrives, Taccone has smoothed out the desperation so that the Eddie Money music doesn’t seems so forced and MacGruber’s Shining-like obsession with a profane driver is not just empty and mean-spirited**, but a strange aside to lines like “be on the lookout for a large brown egg.”
* Exhausted is one of the clear influences on Boogie Nights, so much so that whole scenes are repeated in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film, especially during Amber Waves’ “documentary” about Dirk.
** MacGruber still has time for gags about ripping out throats and what happens when your enemy is too injured to take proper revenge on.