We Failed This Film is a series about various films that simply didn’t get the love that they deserved upon initial release. For the tenth entry, we’re looking at Jorma Taccone’s MacGruber, a film that failed epically in theaters but stands as one of the funniest releases in recent years.
How We Failed It
It feels safe to say that mostly everyone was surprised when a MacGruber film was announced. Based on a recurring Saturday Night Live parody featuring Will Forte as a MacGyver-like character, each sketch had the same hilarious punchline – MacGruber couldn’t ever defuse the bomb, and his ego always got in the way. These sketches usually ran just a few minutes, so how the hell could they translate to an hour and a half? The film is just as surprised that it exists. During the opening theme song, one of the lyrics goes “MacGruber/He made a fucking movie.”
MacGruber — scripted by Will Forte, Jorma Taccone and John Solomon — finds the American hero and supreme bad-ass (Forte) coming out of retirement for Colonel Jim Faith (Powers Boothe) in order to take down terrorist Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer), who has gotten his hands on a nuclear warhead and who also killed MacGruber’s wife Casey (Maya Rudolph) at their wedding. MacGruber rounds up a group of badasses played by WWE wrestlers, but he accidentally kills them all with homemade explosives. Classic MacGruber. Out of a team, he reluctantly accepts the help of young Lieutenant Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe) and convinces former team member Vickie St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig) to join him.
Saturday Night Live films seem to be either wildly successful, or not at all. They either become a gigantic hit and remain in the cultural zeitgeist for years to come, or they flop and become forgotten upon arrival. MacGruber was one of the SNL films to die on impact. The film only had a small budget of $10 million but failed to even catch that. It would flop its opening weekend with just $4 million and end its domestic run after just three weeks with a pathetic $8.5 million. Foreign markets didn’t contribute much, only bumping up the film’s return to $9.3 million.
Where the failure starts is right out of the gate. The sketches were funny and garnered fans, but did anyone really ask for a whole film? No matter how low the budget was, MacGruber wasn’t ever really going to ignite the box office. It didn’t really matter that this film was absolutely hilarious, because not many people were interested in knowing that. There wasn’t a built-in audience.
Critics weren’t doing much to get people in the theaters either, reacting mostly indifferent to MacGruber, if not negatively. A.O. Scott began his review asking “Why does this exist?” and concluded with “The law of diminishing returns is enforced so stringently that the movie succeeds not only in negating its own comedy, but its very being. Thus ‘Why does this film exist?’ turns out to be a trick question, because as we have conclusively demonstrated here, MacGruber does not, at least within the ontological parameters elaborated by this course, exist at all.”
Nathan Rabin was somewhat indifferent to the film, deeming it average and writing “Yet it’s the random silliness that scores, whether it’s Forte’s singular manner of distracting adversaries, his obsession with the license number of a driver who antagonized him, or his offer of sex as a first and last resort. MacGruber alternates quick bursts of laugh-out-loud funniness with long dry stretches. It isn’t exactly good, but for audiences in search of nothing more than a few silly chuckles, it should prove good enough.”
Ty Burr was only halfway convinced of any value in what he was watching: “The never-ending weenie jokes, by contrast, are easy without being particularly funny, and the smugness that has infected so much “SNL’’ product of, oh, the last 25 years — of reasonably talented comics knowing that if they’re naughty enough they won’t have to work too hard to be hilarious — eventually overtakes MacGruber, too. Until then, I guess, we should be thankful the movie hits about half its intended marks, a fairly high average for one of these spinoffs. Believe the hype: MacGruber actually is the best SNL movie since Wayne’s World — but only because the alternatives are It’s Pat, A Night at the Roxbury, and The Ladies’ Man.
Yes, MacGruber is very stupid (and very silly), but it is 100% committed to being the best possible version of very stupid and very silly.
Why It’s Great
I’ll never forget going to see MacGruber. My friend and I saw it the first day in theaters, as it was the only movie out that weekend that we had a halfway interest in. There were about five other people in the theater, but it felt packed with how hard everyone was laughing. We didn’t watch MacGruber again for a good three years, but we could quote the entire film off of one viewing. We never forgot it.
Will Forte plays the lead role with as much commitment both physically and mentally as say Christian Bale in The Fighter or Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. In those performances, Bale was Dicky Eklund, De Niro was Jake LaMotta, Forte was MacGruber. He’s all in. Forte plays the role as an examination of fractured ego. He thinks he’s the ultimate all-American badass, but as time passes, it becomes more evident that he’s a self-deluded, egotistical and intolerant asshole. MacGruber is the least capable member of the team. He’s trapped in this idea of the 80s and 90s action hero, while the rest of the world has moved on. He’s consumed by how awesome he thinks he is, putting more focus on how everyone perceives him rather than the actual mission at hand. When he bursts into headquarters and says he’s in for the mission, the colonel replies “Thank God.” MacGruber retorts, “Your God can’t help you Jim….but I can.”
One of the best things that highlights MacGruber’s all-consuming ego is presented in a running gag involving a license plate number. In one scene, a guy driving by yells an insult, and MacGruber immediately starts memorizing the license plate number, KFBR392. Later, Piper finds “MacGruber’s Pad” that’s absent of any clues or notes, but instead is filled with pages upon pages of varying recreations of the writing “KFBR392,” ending with a badly done child’s drawing of himself taking a shit on the car and the guy driving. He’s more concerned with taking down some random guy who insulted his car than stopping a nuclear threat. He’s also so in love with his own image that he can’t even realize he is responsible for making Cunth a villain. When MacGruber tells Piper about his backstory with Cunth and Casey, it’s clear MacGruber himself was the villain as he cheated with Casey while she was engaged to Cunth, stole her, then made her abort Cunth’s child that she was carrying. What sells the comedy in the scene is how Forte recounts the events like a grizzled veteran of war and tragedy, while Piper just sits there in shock. No irony or hyperbole, Forte’s work here was worthy of an Oscar.
The film shares MacGruber’s deluded ideas of action heroism as director Jorma Taccone and consistently underappreciated cinematographer Brandon Trost shoot the film not like a comedy, but an honest to God action film. Hollywood scientists have been trying to recreate the heightened heroic propaganda aesthetic of Michael Bay for a long time, and honestly, the best recreation is in MacGruber. Exterior light is blown out and interiors have a smoky sheen to them. It’s the glossy look of action films from the 80s and 90s, complete with the hyperactive camerawork during moments of tension. Take out the central character of MacGruber and the film could float as a perfect recreation of 80s and 90s action cinema. Put in MacGruber, a self-obsessed man who is only a supposed badass rather than an actual one, and the comedy erupts. The aesthetics parody and skewer a lot of action movie tropes and beats, but it’s also playing them out with full commitment to their ideals. Complementing this is Matthew Compton’s score, which also feels like it belongs squarely in a genuine action film, punctuating moments of comedy through guitar wails and highlighting moments of tension with sincerity.
What’s great is that the rest of the cast, for the most part, plays it straight like they’re in an action movie normally reserved for an action hero more capable than MacGruber. It all complements the full-blown insanity by Forte. The other performers seem unaware that they’re in a comedy, and that’s what makes it hilarious. Powers Boothe plays the tough Colonel like he belongs in a movie with Stallone, and Ryan Phillippe plays Dixon Piper like the by-the-books buddy cop trope created in the 80s. Kristen Wiig hadn’t become a household name by this time, but it’s clear that she was always going to get there, as such an intuitive comedic talent wasn’t always going to stay a secret. Wiig plays Vickie with a similar self-deluded quality that is half in MacGruber’s world and half in actuality. Val Kilmer is game as Cunth, gleefully riding the line between sincerity and parody in his portrayal of a classic stock villain hellbent on destroying the world for no discernable reason.
The editing by Jamie Gross is responsible for much of the hilarity, bringing to life wonderful instances of comedic editing. There’s a running gag featuring a song with a bad-ass guitar riff to signify how cool it is, but then the music gets interrupted by the 80s soft-rock that MacGruber plays on his blaupunkt. In another instance, Gross’s editing shines when MacGruber is making lewd offers to Piper to join his team, offering to fuck Piper or to be fucked by Piper or really just that he’ll fuck anything in the room. “JUST TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT ME TO FUCK!!!” he cries, with Forte completely selling this guy falling apart. Piper shuts the door in panic and turns away for a moment, but when he looks back, Taccone cuts back to MacGruber with his pants and underwear completely off, seemingly impossible given the quickness of the edit.
After seeing MacGruber, filmmaker Edgar Wright tweeted “Had a lovely day off and finally saw MacGruber. Which features two of the most memorable sex scenes in cinema. Good lord.” It’s an accurate response. The sex scenes in the film are works of comedic genius, and made so by the editing. Both play out romantically with 80s music, but what’s great is when the sound cuts out and we’re just left with the sound of MacGruber’s alarmingly loud moaning for an absurdly long amount of time. Taccone doubles down on this just one scene later as MacGruber goes to Casey’s grave to apologize and ends up having sex with her ghost too, complete with the overtly long and alarmingly loud moaning. A night watchmen picks up trash and looks up to see MacGruber loudly humping thin air. By cutting away from this scene to look at it from an external point of view, Taccone points out the absurdism and heightens the hilarity.
MacGruber is one of the funniest works of comedy of this decade, and also one of the most clever and inventive works of postmodern cinema in the same time span. The levels of absurdism that it goes to are unforgettable, the film successfully makes fun of 80s and 90s action films while still doing the courtesy of looking just as good as them. Classic MacGruber.
The film has garnered a sort of cult status since initially failing. When The Dissolve revisited MacGruber for their “Movie of the Week” series, Matt Singer wrote “… MacGruber is on its way to becoming one of the biggest cult comedies of the last decade – and people are still discovering it. In a sense, the story of every cult movie is the story of a tragedy, because a film can only acquire true cult status through box-office failure. But the same things that ensured MacGruber’s financial failure cemented its creative success, and while it’s frustrating to watch a great movie flounder in theaters, quality does eventually win out. There’s some kind of cosmic justice in that. In the end, the cream rises to the top. And then it pounds some Cunth.”
The quote captures most of the films I’ve covered in this column. Quality is always remembered, and time can only stand to help great films.
However, what I’m really waiting on and hoping for is a sequel. Every now and then, rumors resurface from Forte and Taccone, most recently just a few weeks ago when the former said he would carve out some writing time with Taccone and John Solomon to write the sequel after finishing the current season of The Last Man on Earth. This sort of talk has been going on for years, but the march towards the sequel getting made has commenced. Still, I’d like to take the opportunity to say that if a follow-up went the Kickstarter route, I’d be the first to donate. Whatever it takes to get another MacGruber film made, I’m in. Just tell me what you want me to fuck.
Dylan Moses Griffin has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.