With Will Forte, Kristen Wiig, Ryan Phillippe, Val Kilmer, Powers Boothe. Directed by Jorma Taccone. Rated R for strong crude and sexual content, violence, language and some nudity. 90 minutes.
You have to go back to the megaflop “Hudson Hawk” (1991) to find a so-called action comedy as aggressively stupid as MACGRUBER. Based on a “Saturday Night Live” skit, it stars Will Forte as superagent MacGruber, who seems to be in a timewarp from the late ’70s/early ’80s. His gimmick is that he doesn’t use guns, but instead improvises weapons from everyday materials like dental floss. As a brief sketch it might – emphasize might – be amusing. Bloated to an hour-and-a-half it is excruciating.
The plot – as if anyone going to see this would care – has MacGruber called out of retirement to battle his arch-enemy Dieter von Cunth (Val Kilmer). Are you laughing yet? This is what passes for wit in this movie. More often than not we’re treated to shots of Forte’s butt, once with a stalk of celery sticking out of it. (Yes, really.)
Dieter has stolen a nuclear warhead and MacGruber’s old mentor (Powers Boothe) believes only MacGruber can save the day. The interesting question is why, since MacGruber is vain, incompetent, and is far more likely to mess things up than set things right. Of course then we wouldn’t have a movie, which might have been a blessing. Instead MacGruber is joined by Vicki St. Elmo (fellow SNLer Kristin Wiig) and Lt. Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe) who starts out thinking MacGruber is an idiot but ends up as his friend. Oops. Sorry for giving away that plot “twist.”
For ninety minutes, there are attempts to derive laughs from sex, violence, and MacGruber removing his pants. Oddly for a movie so obsessed with male nudity, there’s also a number of gags relying on homosexual panic. Forte and his screenwriting collaborators seem to think if a joke doesn’t work the first time, they should trot it out several more times in the hopes that familiarity will breed laughter rather than contempt.
Casting people like Boothe and Kilmer might have seemed like a smart idea but all they do is show that Forte is in over his head. Unlike such bumblers as Austin Powers or Inspector Clouseau, there’s nothing particularly likable about MacGruber, and Forte doesn’t know how to win us over. Ironically, Kilmer did a spy spoof that showed how this could be done right, the 1984 Zucker Brothers comedy “Top Secret.”
By the time we get to the happy ending, which includes MacGruber urinating on the burnt remains of his foe, viewers will be less likely to be asking if the character will be back in a sequel than whether it’s too late too demand their money back. About the only positive to come out of “MacGruber” is that it has engendered a lot of discussion as to why so many SNL-related movies have been awful. Here’s a clue: a concept that can barely sustain a skit of a few minutes in length is unlikely to have enough depth for a feature length film. After more than thirty years you’d think they’d have finally figured that out.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.