21 May 2010

MacGruber and its Place Among the SNL Pantheon

Ah the SNL movie. Of all the spin-off television films, are there any as great? Hell no. Today we see the premiere of MacGruber (2010), another incredible entry into an already impressive line-up. Okay, well maybe not, but I'll defend some of these films more than most. We haven't had an SNL film in quite a few years but this is certainly looking to make up for that.

There was this weird period in the 1990s when just about any sketch that kind-of took off could seemingly be translated into a full-length film. Check out this list right here. With hindsight, it's easy to see what worked and what didn't immediately. Could you have predicted that the Wayne's World's (1992) ode to Metal and Meta would be such an instantaneous hit? Then again, it's the same kind of schtick that fueled Mike Myers' later films in the decade. At the same time you'd think the gender intrigue behind It's Pat (1994) would have had a better storyline. Right. I'll defend a trio of Will Ferrell's greatest supporting character roles in A Night at the Roxbury (1998), Superstar (1999) and The Ladies Man (2000) (the latter I think is one of SNL's best films...for what that's worth). He is really pretty awesome when he goes nuts and supports the story rather than carries it, which is a testament to his talent.

Let's get back on track. SNL in the past decade has been on and off at best. They lack a "glue," someone who can keep the sketches and people together. It's the anchor. Phil Hartman filled this role in the late 80s and early 90s, later Ferrell took the mantle. After his departure however it has been difficult to find that actor to latch on to. Andy Samberg has submitted some of the best work in the past five years although primarily through Digital Shorts, which takes a whole third out of Saturday Night Live. Jason Sudeikis and Bill Hader are probably the closest males to this position, but it has been Kristen Wiig who makes the bad sketches work.

This is pretty convenient. You can easily see the widely varying degrees of quality (my best props to the "Twilight with Frankensteins" (S35;E5), "Vincent Price's Christmas Special (S35;E10) and of course, "Potatoe Chip" (S35;E8). Also honourable mention to "Flags of the World" (S35;E15) and "Rahm Emanuel" (S35;E14). There, did all the work for you - go watch those sketches and come back, that's about all the good this season amounts to). We could elaborate on the meaning of these sketches (man, the "Twilight Frankenstein" is so dead-on! Taylor Swift is perfect! And "Potatoe Chip" reeks of some unseen, permeating brilliance) So the show has clearly lost some magic somehow, what is the value in tuning in?

Saturday Night Live has an astounding ability to channel the pulse of the nation. It's rapid turn around and immediate production allow it to capture zeitgeist literally like no other major television show, film, music or video game (Maybe Best Week Ever comes close (wait, is that show still on?), but that's more of a regurgitation. SNL serves as a sardonic running commentary on pop culture that elucidates a deeper meaning than just reporting what happened. It reports the feelings - what IS happening. Whoooooa.

So all of this leads to "MacGruber." What the hell we needed minute-long MacGyver sketches on primetime television, who knows, but he's actually somehow turned out to be the best (read: only good) recurring SNL character of past decade. Will Forte plays the hapless MacGruber, who tends to fail at his job a lot. Considering his job is defusing bombs, this really isn't a good thing. Picture a more carefree version of The Hurt Locker (2008). That's definitely what this film will be. For sure.

MacGruber works though, because its surface parody is just that - only surface deep (see also: The Venture Bros...yes I use them as examples for everything. Go watch that show). Take this clip:

The bomb is essentially almost a MacGuffin. It's completely irrelevant to the story and development of the characters (which they pull off within a minute's time). The sketch manages to unfold an identical driving incident that soon becomes completely unimportant to the narrative. Its only importance is ending the sketch quickly, a problem that has much plagued SNL writing.

We can crank these out all day, here are two more of my favourites. It's like the same principle that lets Kenny continue to die on South Park. It doesn't matter how they got in their locked-door bomb situation, how fast the 20-second time limit ticks or even what happens to the characters after the fatal explosion. The sketch has freed itself from all these typical logical constraints to provide for greater access to jokes, laughs as well as insight to a cultural perception that allows for ready acceptance of the characters and situation without need for backstory.

So, will any of this translate onto film? By all accounts everything that has made the sketch great is impossible to replicate in an 88-minute medium. From what I've read the film seems to be taking a more meta route parodying 80s action films in general (can we examine the 2010 interpretation of the 1980s through this film, Hot Tub Time Machine [2010] and The A-Team [2010]? Future times, baby). Should it work? Is Val Kilmer still a tub of lard? Luckily we'll find out the answers to both these incredibly pressing questions tonight. It should be a fun ride at least and if prior SNL movies are any indication, a breed of uncanny stupidity unparalleled in modern film.

Can't wait.

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