Samuel Butler’s Hudibras is a 17th century poem parodying the classic hero. It is accredited as one of the earliest works of the mock-heroic genre. When tales of the overzealous savior exhausted the monoculture, satirists began turning hero epics on their head, often putting a fool in the role of hero.
Butler’s poem centers around an imbecilic knight named Sir Hudibras. Throughout his journey, the knight’s valiance is exaggerated to farcical effect. He is praised as a virtuoso whose actions reveal an incompetent idiot. With a fervor that exceeds ability, Sir Hudibras digs himself into holes he can’t climb out of.
The hero archetype begs for parody. Comedy has a long history of checking the omnipotence of cult figures. Arthurian legends begot Monty Python and the Holy Grail; obsessive cop dramas begot Naked Gun; intergalactic space operas begot Spaceballs; musclebound Greek mythology begot shirtless lectures about “gains” on YouTube.
The absurdity is always in service of the truth: Everyone is vulnerable. If you pretend otherwise, you’ll always fight battles you can’t win. This can be tragic in reality, but it makes for comical fiction.
If you remember, MacGyver was a late 80’s TV series about an ex-Special Forces soldier who used ordinary objects and intellect to escape hazardous situations. “MacGruber” was a recurring Saturday Night Live sketch in the late 2000’s that loosely parodied MacGyver. Will Forte starred as the titular character, with Kristen Wiig serving as his faithful sidekick.
Forte, with SNL writers John Solomon and Jorma Taccone (the latter also of song-parody and pop banger outfit, Lonely Island), took the original sketch and expanded it into a feature-length film, with Taccone directing. This was met with skepticism. How could a one-gag sketch be made into a 90-minute movie? Well, how does an off-hand remark amongst writers turn into a recurring SNL sketch? These people work at one of the most coveted institutions in comedy. Trust funny people to make funny things.
Upon watching MacGruber it becomes clear, they never intended to stretch the original joke. Instead, they widened their target and gave us a story fit for the ‘roided-up, shoot ‘em up, blow ‘em up silliness of 80’s action cinema. MacGruber didn’t stop mocking the ingenuity of Angus MacGyver (his first name was Angus?), but it pivoted to the grotesqueness of a Rambo flick, giving its protagonist the self-righteousness one would need to rip out a person’s throat and call it justice.
The film’s central humor is found in asymmetry. They give the title character an extremely decorated past, making him a legend within the armed forces (and the University of Texas El Paso) that doesn’t square with any of his actions throughout the movie. He is Sir Hudibras, but replace the horse and saddle with a Miata and a blaupunkt. On the flipside, his team is made up of capable people that defer to his lore despite the danger it puts them in. It doesn’t take long to see that MacGruber’s antiquated firebrand has no place in modern special-ops.
Using overblown tactics in a covert mission is an anomaly that demands absurdist humor. It’s a sub-genre that suits Forte’s signature tickled hysteria. He has a skill for humanizing annoying and demented characters with affability (e.g. Phil Miller). Basking in its R-rating, Forte gives MacGruber a profane bravado that quickly turns into the credulousness of a child. As a result, the character is a functioning psychopath shifting from testosterone-fueled tough guy to a man crying with his pants down, begging you to make him sodomize something.
When the title character isn’t vociferous in his lunacy, the script relentlessly imitates the machismo dialogue of the overblown action film: the superfluous cursing, the tacky one-liners, the dick measuring, the hypermasculinity turned unknowing homoeroticism, and the brash diplomacy efforts that start with “excuse me” and end with “you’re excused” before punches are thrown. Every Stalloneism is there for the mocking, whether it precedes blood shed or just an elaborate scheme to spill a cup of water on a lowly henchman.
The other actors are here for Forte’s winking stupidity. The desired Oscars host in waiting, Maya Rudolph provides a quick cameo as MacGruber’s deceased wife, making her mark when she and Forte share a cadence of brutish love making in a graveyard (yep). The sex scenes in this movie offer a hilariously raunchy twist on comedy’s long history of deconstructing overwrought cinematic lovemaking.
Wiig is back as MacGruber’s trusted sidekick and love interest, Vicki St. Elmo. She ditches the distressed subordinate role from the sketch, opting to play Vicki as unshakably loyal, courageous, and completely unwitting—a comedy muscle Wiig flexes better than most. There is no one on this earth who can make the subtlest of whispers and facial movements as devastatingly funny as her.
We also get rare comedic turns from Ryan Phillippe, playing the Sancho Panza to MacGruber’s Don Quixote, Powers Boothe as a General torn between sensible strategy and his blind faith in MacGruber, and a prosthetic nose and pony tailed Val Kilmer who plays the tepid, but menacing Bond villain—but also, Val Kilmer.
I’d imagine everyone on the set of this movie pinched themselves for being allowed to make something so dumb. Forte has co-starred in an Oscar nominated drama, but here, you see a performer eager to hop around, pants down, with a celery stalk extruding from his anus. It’s a reminder that as refined as we strive to be, toilet humor was always our first love.
There are those that adore this movie, and those that are baffled by how you could adore this movie. I doubt the polarity was unexpected. If you never appreciated the swagger of 80’s action films, MacGruber’s dimpled arrogance and crude gusto might only register as obnoxious. This was certainly a niche film. R-rated farces don’t typically appeal to the masses. The film opened in May of 2010. It was objectively a flop.
MacGruber couldn’t have been made at another time because of its concurrence with the SNL sketch, but with its meager budget, it probably would have enjoyed today’s pro bono fan promotion via a more active Twitter. Comedies are also frequently misjudged in their initial screening. The genre’s central goal is to flip conventional norms upside down. This new perspective can be disorienting. It may take a couple times for your eyes to adjust accordingly. When you revisit MacGruber you’re in disbelief of how many jokes you dismissed the first time.
Step Brothers experienced a more famous reappraisal. The heavily improvised comedy was poorly received during its theatrical release, but today, it’s arguably Will Ferrell’s most beloved film. He credits cable reruns for this ascension, allowing people to effortlessly reexamine the movie for how loose and ridiculous he and director Adam McKay intended it to be. Likewise, Seinfeld was nearly cancelled as it waited for a larger audience to realize that the show was about nothing…on purpose! Even when the humor is quote-unquote low brow, critics and naysayers are often the last ones to get the joke.
Knowing MacGruber is susceptible to hasty judgement, fans (present company included) will always sell this movie to friends with a stipulation that I’d imagine Taccone and Forte are okay with: “This will be among the dumbest things you’ve ever seen.” The more this is embraced, the more MacGruber stands to be given its proper acclaim—not as a fondly remembered SNL bit, but an all-time comedy classic.
For more than five centuries comedy has helped us recognize the irony of heroism; that actual heroes are just regular people willing to do foolish things to help the ones they love. MacGruber may not be the hero he wants to be, but we love him for the fool he is.