It’s been ten years since the release of the last film based on a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, and a lot has changed since the era of The Ladies’ Man. It’s not that the show’s humor has become less fratty since the 1990s, the decade of Adam Sandler and Chris Farley; it’s that the type of fratty-ness has changed, evolving from a beer-bong chugfest into something much sillier and more absurd. But the biggest change between then and now, and the one that makes MacGruber both better than expected and more fleeting, is the rise of the SNL Digital Short. The brief films spearheaded by cast member Andy Samberg have grown from cheaply shot goofs to videos like “I’m On a Boat” that make the most of their budget and create something that looks high-quality but still has the lurking feel of a production thrown together in an afternoon. In other words, they’ve made it possible to fake the look of style. As a result, MacGruber doesn’t so much look and feel like a feature as an overlong short, right down to the low-rent glitz and half-done effects. It’s a stylistic hybrid designed to feel both like a cheesy action movie from the 1980s and a self-aware modern spoof of such movies. It exists in a weird world crafted by director and co-writer Jorma Taccone, another member of the Lonely Island comedy troupe that includes Samberg, that mashes up the past and present with no aim other than their own brand of laughter. The film is frequently funny but ultimately insubstantial, offering laughs that last no longer than the sketches that spawned it.
MacGruber (Will Forte) is a highly decorated soldier who’s served an improbable number of tours in every possible conflict for years, and who’s since retired to live a life of solitude after his wife, Casey (Maya Rudolph), was murdered by the villainous Dieter von Cunth (Val Kilmer) on their wedding day. It’s clear from the get-go that MacGruber is the kind of comedy that tells you you’re watching a comedy; the point here isn’t to watch funny or unbelievable things happen to people in a slightly believable universe, but to watch outrageous things happen to people in a parody world that openly acknowledges its falseness. MacGruber is called into active duty once more by Col. Faith (Powers Boothe), who informs him that Cunth has stolen a nuclear weapon. After a few early mishaps, MacGruber is teamed with Faith’s young lieutenant, Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe), and an old friend who’s always carried a torch for him, Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig).
The story hits every beat you’d expect as MacGruber chases down Cunth to save the world, but there’s no point in remotely caring about the plot. The only thing that matters in a parody this flimsily constructed are the jokes, and the good news is that there are a few entertaining ones. Like a lot of “SNL” gags, they’re funny but not hilarious, and though they’re diverting in the moment, they offer none of the fun promise of rewatchability that comes with best comedies. This is largely attributable to the fact that Taccone’s never directed a feature before, and his few writing credits include 2008’s Extreme Movie. He’s a nice guy with some obvious talent, but MacGruber feels too much like a sketch blown out to feature length, with jokes cute enough for a filler sketch just after midnight but not strong enough to sustain a film.
Forte’s got his shtick down pat, though, and the cocksure but idiotic action hero is one of his better characters. Similarly, Wiig is fantastic at underplaying her delivery, and Phillippe does the only thing he has to do, which is look serious and mouth the lines. Yet there’s not quite enough going on to make Forte stand out, and that’s again in part because the character was never meant to be an original one, just a joke based on an old TV series. The funniest moments in the film are when the screenplay briefly diverges from trying to make MacGruber a parody of “MacGyver” and just lets him be this weird, sexually impulsive, immature screw-up of a hero. There are only so many times you can watch him try and fail to make a bomb out of household items, but seeing him swagger away from his Miata with his Blaupunkt tape deck in hand, or hearing his bizarre pleas to trade sexual favors for squad gear, is more entertaining than you’d think.
As you can probably guess, the weirdness starts setting in pretty much from the beginning. The film is set in 2009, yet MacGruber drives that tiny Miata with detachable tape-deck and listens to songs like Toto’s “Rosanna;” Vicki sports feathered hair and unfortunate pantsuits; Faith has a Reagan poster hanging in his office, etc., etc. There’s no attempt at all to explain MacGruber’s sartorial or musical tastes, and in fact Taccone acts like it’d be stupid to even ask. On a meta level, it’s because the character is a parody of “MacGyver,” but on another, it’s because Taccone and co-writers Forte and John Solomon just think this is funny. Bits and pieces of the 1980s are grafted onto a world 25 years older for no other reason than that Taccone think it’s entertaining to see Wiig with padded shoulders. This is really why the film never rises above the level of extended sketch: It lacks a sense of purpose and any kind of consistency. It’s too polished to be a failure and too noncommittal to feel like a real comedy. The focus is on quick, one-shot laughs that start to lose their effectiveness the moment they’re delivered. MacGruber comes to inhabit a maddening middle realm: It’s funny but forgettable, disappearing as soon as it arrives.