Every Friday, we’re recommending an older movie that’s available to stream or download and worth seeing again through the lens of our current moment. We’re calling the series “Revisiting Hours” — consider this Rolling Stone’s unofficial film club. This week: Amy Nicholson on Will Forte’s 2010 SNL-sketch-turned-cult-classic MacGruber.
Will Forte dreaded playing George W. Bush on Saturday Night Live. The Commander-in-Chief had been Will Ferrell’s job until he’d left the show to make movies, and Forte, the wiry weirdo who’d interrupt his castmates at the urinal by putting his hand in front of their stream, never liked obeying a template. His Dubya was a sad child who just wished he could go out to play, something to keep Forte visible while his bizarro original sketches got buried in the back end of the show.
But even though the comedian lost that skirmish to capture the aura of the Bush presidency, MacGruber, his mulleted secret agent who got promoted from SNL bumper sketch to possible next-Wayne’s-World movie franchise, won the war. When the film came out in 2010, this feature-length goof on TV’s MacGyver just looked like a spoof of retro action flicks where good guys kicked ass. Eight years later, MacGruber now looks like a lampoon of America’s own certainty that we were the good guys. It’s still hilarious – even it’s now clear the joke is on us.
On SNL, a typical MacGruber skit ran between 30 seconds and a minute and a half — just long enough for him to do something dumb and explode. The set designers never even changed the same gray bricks. You’d need to stack at least a hundred sketches together to make a movie, so Forte and co-writers John Solomon and Jorma Taccone (who also directs) let the character stretch, which was easy since he had zero backstory. Instead of a riff on Richard Dean Anderson’s highly inventive secret agent, movie MacGruber is more like the macho men of the 1980s, who pumped up America to get over the pain of the Vietnam War and convinced us we were winners.
Between the first Rambo film and the sequel, Sylvester Stallone mutated from a traumatized Vietnam vet to an unkillable super-brute; every other swole jock in Hollywood was suddenly inspired to form a whole football team of ‘roided out action stars who mumbled catchphrases about freedom and liberty ass-kicking while mowing down hundreds of faceless foreigners. (A newspaper clip in MacGruber‘s opening credits hails him for killing 200 people in Israel.) Even our presidents believed the hype. When Ronald Reagan invaded Cambodia in 1985, he referenced Rambo: First Blood Part II: “In the spirit of Rambo, let me tell you we’re going to win this time.”
Yup, U.S.A. won that time, and it kept winning until 2001. Luckily for Forte’s hero, he got to ignore that loss and the thousands of American lives lost since. The movie reveals he faked his own death on July 4th, 1999, and spent the next decade hiding in Ecuador. Powers Boothe’s Colonel Faith drags him out of retirement to avert a plan by the evil Dieter Von Cunth (a ponytailed Val Kilmer) to aim an atomic bomb at the State of the Union. MacGruber emerges from the jungle like a time capsule of American confidence. If Forte played Bush like a man who lost by winning, this guy is a fool who won’t admit he’s losing until he miraculously wins.
“Look, I’m not good with plans and I’m not good with clues,” he boasts to his straight man sidekick Piper (Ryan Phillipe). “What I am good with is kicking ass and ripping throats.” Ripping throats, yes. Otherwise, for the rest of movie, MacGruber mostly strips off his pants, kills his friends, tries to kill his other friends, desecrates corpses, under-tips baristas, blows up innocent people’s cars, ruins every mission, takes credit for other people’s kills and finally, almost off-handedly defuses the missile. Oh, and has grunting, repulsive sex with a ghost. En route to victory (if victory is what you call peeing on his enemy’s dead body after he’s already been shot, pushed off a cliff and set on fire), MacGruber blows up America’s self-image of the can’t-lose hero, the safety net that encouraged Bush to invade Iran and Afghanistan, comforted people that the War on Terror would end and allowed voters to imagine a Trump presidency would just be a harmless gag reel.
When MacGruber hit theaters in 2010, it was a bomb itself – the lowest grossing SNL wide release ever. It was pulled from theaters in just three weeks; Parade magazine deemed it the second biggest flop of the year. With its ejectable CD players and yacht-rock soundtrack, it bore an unfortunate resemblance to the other lazy retro ’80s reboot that summer, The A-Team. Critics checked out. (Per the New York Times: “The law of diminishing returns is enforced so stringently that the movie succeeds not only in negating its own comedy, but its very being.”) Audiences never even checked in.
But after the smoke cleared, the film was declared a cult hit. Comedy’s funny like that. The genre works on surprise — did he really say, “Pound some Cunth?!” — but, ironically, audiences have a paranoid need to know what the joke is first, as though everyone’s afraid they’ll laugh in the wrong place. And in MacGruber, every joke is wrong. The whole movie is booby-trapped. Taccone refuses to cue the audience when it’s safe to smile: Are we really allowed to laugh when MacGruber’s homemade C4 explosives kill a van full of his friends, each just lovingly introduced in montage? Or when he uses Piper as a human shield? Or when a distraught MacGruber offers to suck the Colonel’s dick to stay on the Cunth case?
“Am I Leslie Nielsen?” asked Powers Boothe before they shot that last scene, wondering if he should bug out his eyes or do an over-the-top double take. “Oh no,” Taccone replied, “When he’s offering to fellate you, it’s heartbreaking for you. It’s the worst thing imaginable.” And Forte matches his costar’s agony. He’s terrifyingly committed. No wonder Alexander Payne scooped the actor up for a dramatic leading role in his Best Picture nominee Nebraska – and no wonder Forte then gravitated toward fully exploring a complicated character for three seasons of The Last Man on Earth.
Action movies are easier to anticipate than comedies. You can make a checklist: dramatic score, dramatic glares, sepia lighting and some text at the bottom telling the audience if they’re in D.C. or the Dzhugdzar Mountains. MacGruber proved Taccone could direct a blockbuster, if he bothered. But he’s devoted himself to comedy with more sincerity than the exiled MacGruber devoted himself to non-violence, even though the Lonely Islander’s later films like Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping basically got the same reception – a critical shrug, abysmal box office sales and instant ascension into the cult of under-appreciated gems. Classic MacGruber.
Maybe the movie would fare better today, now that we’re farther away from the Judd Apatow dominance of comedy, where audiences were trained to want two dick jokes and a hug. (And an all-white cast and one gay panic joke, which MacGruber at least attempts to balance out in the closing credits.) Unlike Apatow’s toxic bros, Forte’s bumbling James Bond-wannabe admits he’s a bad boyfriend, cutting from the gauzy, candle-strewn cinema fantasy of the Grubes taking his teammate Vicky St. Elmo’s virginity. The camera lingers on Forte’s bellybutton and chest hair as if to reassure us it would never ask Kristen Wiig show her boobs, with the sweaty, spasming reality of MacGruber selfishly pumping her like she’s a blow-up doll.
Wiig shot that scene on her birthday. She was one year away from Bridesmaids proving she was a full-on movie star. Audiences should have known here. Wiig trills half of Vicky’s lines in bird song and rocks a pair of high-waisted trousers with such conviction, they came back in style. And she’s at the center of the best scene in the movie when MacGruber sends her to rendezvous with Cunth’s goons at a coffee shop dressed up as him while he cowers in the van. The actress has to play the scene as though she’s got a split personality, dropping change in the barista’s tip jar and then apologetically scooping out the coins when MacGruber yells through an earpiece that he’d never do that. Among all his sins, he’s cheap. (In real life, Forte donated his entire per-diem to the film’s crew. Oh, while we’re separating man from legend, Forte’s high school voted him “Best Personality.”)
“Everybody’s pretty flawed,” said Forte when the film came out. “That’s America. MacGruber is you, and MacGruber is me.” That’s an empathetic reading, if you take the stance that he really was our nation’s greatest hero up until the minute he man-slaughtered his friends. After that, he drops the ego shtick and blubbers, “I’m so fucking stupid! I don’t know what I’m doing and everybody hates me!” Maybe he really was brave once upon a time, and it’s the trauma of his own near-death that makes him cower in the van. Or, leaping back further still, perhaps he’s been broken since Cunth murdered his wife Casey (Maya Rudolph). MacGruber bleats out his need for vengeance like a get-out-of-jail free card … and it usually works. Like America after 9/11, he’s acting like the attack was an out-of-nowhere first strike, instead of linking it to decades of less-than-heroic behavior. Like, for example, the fact that Casey used to be engaged to Cunth until MacGruber lured her to cheat on her fiancé and abort his baby.
And right now, it feels like every Republican in Congress still believes in the exact same heroism that MacGruber mocks, that all their sins will be forgiven if they brandish a toothpick with the American flag. The anonymous senior administration official scribbling secret notes to the New York Times is fighting the machine gunning of the Constitution with a clothes pin. Like Vicky and Piper, the whole world is stuck on the sidelines seeing how close the nuclear countdown clock can get to zero before the GOP powers finally pull the celery out of their ass and do something. Even Paul Ryan’s beefcake workout portraits look like he’s auditioning to play sidekick No. 4. But only MacGruber can explode and live. America might not.
Previously: Burn After Reading