The revulsion, the debasement, and the shame: 5 notes on MacGruber

1) MacGruber left me with an overwhelming sense of embarrassment. Mercifully, except for me and a pal, the theater was empty, thank God, but I still wondered if anyone saw me leave that part of the Cineplex.

2) In the midst of all the sickly-saccharine hyped previews for The Karate Kid and Jonah Hex, I didn't expect to stumble upon one of the worst films of the year, and for the first 15 minutes or so I chuckled along with the exposition where I learned that Mac is a "Real American hero" who foiled a terrorist plot, etc. Cheerfully played by Saturday Night Live actor Will Forte, MacGruber returns from the dead to square off against ultra-nemesis Dieter Von Cunth (a jowly Val Kilmer) for blowing up his bride at the altar.

3) Mac's brand of humor follows the Pink Panther/Get Smart model (fumbling goofball hero errs constantly, but still succeeds in the end). MacGruber is also a copy of a copy of MacGyver, a mid-1980s TV show (film version now in development) involving a man who refuses to carry a gun. Instead he slaps together ingenious mechanical solutions (a weapon from a knife,rubber band, and a Q-tip, for example) to foil the bad guys in life and death situations.

4) But then, the debasement kicked in. Once Mac suffers the setback of his A-Team accidentally getting blown up by his own explosives, the military takes him off the case. Suddenly, Mac pulls down his pants and offers to fellate Lt. Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe) in exchange for helping him form a new team. With no transition, Mac crumbles into a servile, whiny nonentity who reminded me of the limits of what actors might endure to get noticed. Mac demeans himself repeatedly as he spouts off poop and anal jokes with the grim insistency of someone banging at a telephone pole with an aluminum baseball bat. At one point Mac appears with a celery stalk stuck up his rear to distract the bad guys (a joke that sad Ryan repeats later. Is there a limit to the indignities of being in a Hollywood release these days?). At another point, during a beer break, Vicki St. Elmo (poor but game Kristen Wiig with feathered blond hair) stands up and announces that she has to use the bathroom.
"To do number one or number two?" asks Mac gleefully.
"I'm not saying," replies Vicki, smiling.
"Then it's number two!"
At moments like this I wonder--who is this fourth grade humor directed to in this R-rated film?

5) In all, MacGruber is this year's answer to Land of the Lost, a soulless, Godless stretch of craven time-sucking attention-whoring dreck, an absence masquerading as a presence, an emperor with less than no clothes on (but with a celery stalk). With his beard-stubble and mullet, Will Forte may think he's cute, but his brand of terminally ironic humor has all of the appeal of watching humanoids twitch on a screen. We see a man debased, so we are debased, and there's nothing to consider but the reminder that we all have the potential to sink this low. Later in the movie, Mac gets a couple ironic montage sex scenes to register his potency. He says, "I like holes!" Vicki says, "I'm a virgin." He says, "Not for long!" We also get treated to an image of MacGruber cheerfully defecating upon a corpse. What does it say about us, what kind of post-Borat cultural desolation have we attained when a movie like this gets wide distribution in Cineplexes across America?


Kelli Marshall said…
"What does it say about us, what kind of post-Borat cultural desolation have we attained when a movie like this gets wide distribution in Cineplexes across America?" This is an excellent question. We might also ask what it says about the Hollywood execs, screenwriters, studios, etc. that put out such (ridiculous) fare. If you're interested, I attempt to tackle those sorts of questions in my latest blog post on '80s remakes and the Gen X target audience (MacGruber/MacGyver fits there, I think):
wickhamf said…
I was very excited for MacGruber. The trailers looked goofy. I heard comparisons to The Naked Gun. I was sold. The actual viewing of the film was painful for me in a way that I can't even comprehend. It was like watching a cow be slowly killed while molested and shat upon.

It was simply not funny in a way that looked desperate. MacGruber was just a dumb nitwit who seemed to just mess up everything he attempted. There was no pathos and no real yearning for pathos. He was a non-compelling character that seemed to want to destroy any semblance of good will that I could have had for him. Will Forte seems like a talented guy. But I feel that as a filmgoer, my standards cannot tolerate such a lazy, desperate, sad movie with such a character. I flinched more than once at his comic failings.

Why is a celery stick in the ass funny? Why would anyone consider it funny? Even if it sounds goofy, the film failed to execute the joke with any semblance of comic timing. It seemed to say, "Dur, look at the man with that vegetable is his butt-hole. Dur!" The movie was rude, crude, and vulgar which can sometimes be great (see Borat), but here the humor flopped around waiting for a punch-line that never came.

Maybe I just did not get it. Maybe my standards for comedies are different than most, but I would rather cut off my own hand than watch this movie again sober. This is merely a second opinion, but I want to warn everyone in the world not to watch this movie. Download it illegally if you are curious, but the only bit of goodness that I got from going to the theater to see this piece of trash was noticing that the entire theater was empty. Stay away!
Craig said…
I refuse to believe the positive reviews for this thing. Pass!
Sam Juliano said…
And there are many negatives too. For once I was actually happy I was sitting in a theatre watching the latest SHREK this afternoon! At least I got some quality time with teh kids! Ha!
Kevin J. Olson said…
Count me as one of the people who thought this movie was damn funny. I know I'm in the minority (hey, Glenn Kenny agrees with me!) on this one, but I just felt like the film's onslaught of jokes -- of all kinds -- was something to be admired. Whenever you literally have about a joke every 30 seconds some of them aren't going to be as funny as others. I am also quite aware -- and I feel you probably know this about based on film discussions we've had here and on my blog -- that this film isn't for everyone and that some of the jokes are beyond the realm of vulgar and awful; however, I found myself laughing my ass off at the earnestness of the writers and performers to do whatever it takes to get the audience to laugh at something.

Again, this kind of humor is not for everyone and I'm not even trying to suggest here that people who dislike this movie "don't get it", because I think you got exactly what it was supposed to whether or not that tickled you is another question, and obviously it didn't, and I totally understand that. Forte is not for everyone, and I can see how some people see him as an annoying imp who will do anything to please you, constantly tugging on your shirt saying "look how funny I am!"; but again, I kind of like that quality in Forte because I think everything he does is good natured.

This is in no way a mean-spirited comedy like a lot of the drek we've been getting lately (or mean-spirited attempts at satire a la Sacha Cohen or Bill Maher)...I think any good parody has to start with the filmmakers love of the material they're riffing on.

Craig: You calling me a liar! Hehe.

Finally, Wickhamf said:

Why is a celery stick in the ass funny? Why would anyone consider it funny? Even if it sounds goofy, the film failed to execute the joke with any semblance of comic timing. It seemed to say, "Dur, look at the man with that vegetable is his butt-hole. Dur!" The movie was rude, crude, and vulgar which can sometimes be great (see Borat), but here the humor flopped around waiting for a punch-line that never came.

It's funny for the same reason Borat (the character) is funny. Aloofness and naivete, when done right, can be hilarious, and I think Forte is really good at it. The point isn't whether or not the celery stick in the ass is funny, the point is that the performers are saying "damn the torpedoes" and are willing to try ANY kind of joke to get you to laugh. The lack of punch line is also not important as it seems that this movie feels most comfortable in the realm of Dada. It reminded me a lot of Top Secret! in the sense that here is a movie that is willing to throw any and every kind of joke at you in the hopes that you'll laugh. There's something to admire in that kind of audaciousness and earnestness that's buried beneath the vulgarity.
Thanks, Kelli. As you write, much of the emphasis on '80s remakes is due to the many movie executives in their nostalgic forties who want to share with us a simpler time.

Thanks, wickhamf. We do largely agree about MacGruber, and I like the way your analysis includes the sense of desperation the film's humor exudes.

Thanks, Craig, and Sam. I am still proud, however, of having never seen any Shrek movie.

Thanks, Kevin, for your thoughtful stand. We can say that we respectfully disagree. I have much regard for your blog and the quality of your writing, and I understand that one person may find something funny that someone else may not (I still wonder how that empty theater may have influenced my reaction to that film).

But still, that level of vulgarity is epidemic in our culture today. What was once a largely masculine puerile form of humor popularized by Adam Sandler now has champions like Sarah Silverman and Chelsea Handler, and it shows how jaded audiences have become dissatisfied with old more tame comedic fare in the Naked Gun series (for instance). What this new comedy delivers is a combination of humor and outrageousness, the more outrageous the better, and that leads to ultra-vulgarity equivalent to hyper-violence.

I wonder where is this trend leading us? To film-length rectal examinations much as one finds in ASS the movie in Idiocracy? It seems oddly appropriate in these over-populated times to see a man having fun defecating on a corpse, but is this trend healthy? In the old days, Cary Grant would fall in the water or wear a nightgown in Bringing Up Baby. Nowadays, increasingly audiences laugh at the destruction of people like those guys laughing at they shoot up high schoolers in Columbine. Wiig has to laugh when Forte wants to know exactly what bodily function she will indulge in in the bathroom, but she's not acting like any woman I know, chuckling along. One often sees this kind of odd female schizophrenic behavior in male-oriented comedies.

I know that much humor tends to dwell on the lower bodily functions, but there's still something disturbing about the need for comics to trump each other in exceeding the previous limit of vulgarity. As comics search for ways to make us laugh, they increasingly don't seem to have much dignity or humanity left. I also wonder if Forte goes to those extremes in part because he isn't a star. He still has to exaggerate things further just to claim our attention.
Kevin J. Olson said…
I think we're actually in agreement about the epidemic of vulgar comedy. My main point of emphasis in my review was that what I found so enjoyable about MacGruber (the film and the character) was the naivete. Vulgar, yes, but not mean spirited. Irreverent, hell yes, but not sardonic. I always felt like the material was in love with the very thing it was riffing (80's action films, which were gratuitousness and vulgar in their own way...the hyper-violence you bring up), and that's the difference between material like this versus something that is just vulgar for vulgarities sake.

The movie filled with SO many jokes, and all kinds at that, that I didn't bother covering the one's that made me -- and my theater full of 12 people (four of which ended up walking out on the film)! -- groan and roll my eyes: celery in the ass (not particularly funny), a motif of over fellatio (not particularly funny), and big wrestlers kissing men (not particularly funny). However, in the goofiest and most joke-filled films by people like the Abrahams and Zucker crew for all of the eye-rolling jokes, there are a lot that work because they do such a good job of poking fun at the genre they're working with.

I thought what worked best were the aesthetic elements/attempts to satire a genre that I loved as a pre-teen. Oh, I also loved movies like Bringing Up Baby (my favorite Hawks films), but I think you're right when you suggest people like Forte aren't up for that kind of comedy.

One last thought: I'm interested in what you say about comedy today in regards to people like Chelsea Handler and Sarah Silverman. I happen to love both, but with a caveat: I can only take about 20 minutes before I'm spent. Handler is a talented woman and funny as hell when she aims her irreverence at people who deserve it...she's not really too mean spirited (as opposed to someone like Bill Maher who is a jerk, and then always undercuts his own jokes with his annoying "I kid, I kid" you don't, Bill) to the people she makes fun of every day on her show, and that's what I love about her. But like Silverman, Handler will detour into vulgarity about body parts that seems so sophomoric and beneath her intelligence and ability for comedy.

Chris Rock may be one of the best at mixing vulgarity with great timing and social commentary, and Jerry Seinfeld shows that you don't have to be vulgar or mean-spirited to be funny; however, I don't know where that leaves a film like MacGruber because I don't think it aspires to be ANYTHING like what those comics produce (although Rock has sketchy track record with films).

For what it is (a genre parody) I think MacGruber succeeds greatly. It made me laugh more than it made me roll my eyes, but that doesn't mean that I didn't absolutely abhor some of the jokes. Part of the film's charm, I think, is its ability to go for every kind of joke and try to get you to laugh every minute...and perhaps I'm a sucker, but, man, I laughed a lot in relatively empty theater. I was too busy being amused by the machine-gun-fire rapidity of the jokes to remember the ones that were truly groan inducing.

Anyway...sorry for the long reply. All I wanted to say was that I agree with you about the misfiring of certain jokes and about the state of comedy today, but in MacGruber's defense I don't think the vulgarity is what it's all about.
Thanks, Kevin,

I find it interesting that four people walked out when you were watching MacGruber. The American public seems to have an unerring instinct to skip this one.

I was never quite sure what exactly was being parodied. MacGyver the TV show or a particular type of action movie? The bad guy (Val Kilmer, I cannot look at him without thinking how his face has changed since The Doors) is such a generic villain, the rogue missile set-up so common, the storyline could have been lifted from most any action film since the 1960s.

Perhaps the main appeal of the original SNL resides in the way MacGruber always gets blown up after about two minutes. Too bad the movie didn't follow that convention as well.
Ed Howard said…
This skit has never, never, ever been funny in 2-minute increments on SNL - so why is anyone surprised when it continues to be painfully unfunny when stretched out to feature-length? Even the trailers make me cringe. It's excrutiating at short lengths and it must be absolute torture to endure the full thing. Vulgar comedy doesn't phase me, but it needs to be actually funny, not just the thousandth retread of action movie cliches that have been stale for decades - by now this stuff has been rehashed so many times that most people are more familiar with the parodies than the originals, and the next generation of retreads are copies of copies of copies, parodies of parodies. I've been baffled to see writers I respect (Kevin, Glenn) giving this movie positive notices, but even that isn't going to get me into the theater.
Jason Bellamy said…
This skit has never, never, ever been funny in 2-minute increments on SNL ...

Well, that I disagree with. If nothing else, watch the Charles Barkely-hosted editions of MacGruber. It includes a running gag that makes me laugh just thinking about it.

That said, on the whole, I don't disagree. (Note: To be clear, I haven't seen the movie, so I can't comment on it.)
Thanks, Ed and Jason,

This problem with a copy of a copy of an ironic source plagued Land of the Lost as well (not to mention Get Smart). If every aspect of a movie comes with ironic air quotes around it, then it can easily congeal into something monstrous. At the nihilistic end point of irony, every person on screen might as well be cardboard cut-outs or plastic action figures moving in a context-free void.

I was thinking Jonah Hex would be the worst thing this summer. With Marmaduke, Killers, Grown Ups, etc., we have so much to look forward to.