MacGruber (Will Forte) may be an expert at defusing bombs, but that didn't help him this weekend as his film opened to general indifference from the ticket-buying public.
Credit: Universal Pictures
You know what I need more of?
Ongoing columns here at HitFix.
Even so, there's a project I've been working on for a while now, and it seems like this weekend might be the perfect time to kick it off. I'm a film geek first and foremost. I’ve had the bug my whole life. Well, since I was seven, anyway. Like many people who are in their mid-30s now, it was "Star Wars" that first spurred me to pursue my interest in film. For a while, I was only into certain types of movies. Sci-fi, monster flicks, fantasy films, cartoons... these were the shared dreams that first infected me. As I grew older, my tastes grew broader as I realized that it was the medium itself with which I was in love. It’s the potential for all types of storytelling that excites me.
I have a particular fondness for great comedy. My list of favorite comic influences is long and diverse, and I find different things funny at different times. The slapstick of the Three Stooges, the anarchy of the Marx Brothers, the wry wit of "The Thin Man" movies, the elegant precision of Buster Keaton, and the willing surreality of Monty Python all appeal to me equally depending on my mood. When discussing film comedy, though, there’s one television show that is literally impossible to ignore.
NBC’s "Saturday Night Live" has long since ceased to be “just” a television show. It’s an institution that’s celebrating its 237th season, a cornerstone of show business, one of those gigs everyone has to try at least once. The show has launched dozens of careers, maybe even hundreds by now. If you make a list of every film involving alumni from the show -- as actor, director, writer, or producer -- one is faced with a cross-section of American film that involves titles as disparate as "The Last Picture Show" and "Doctor Detroit," as different as "JFK" and "Modern Problems". For better and for worse, the show is inescapable.
My first exposure to the skewed sensibilities that distinguished the original cast of SNL was in the form of a prime-time special that collected some early highlights of the show. I couldn’t have been more than eight years old, but I vividly remember Dan Aykroyd as Julia Childs cutting his thumb and bleeding out in spectacular fashion, painting the set red as he stumbled about. To think that people could joke about such things changed the way I allowed myself to think about the nature of what is funny. It was freeing, almost intoxicating.
SNL quickly became an obsession for me, and I would do anything to see it. When NBC added SCTV to their Saturday night lineup a few years later, I was in heaven. Even in the worst years of the show (and there have been many), I’ve been drawn to its potential. When many of the SCTV cast members jumped ship and went to SNL, the two shows became linked in my mind forever. That’s why I made the decision to include the casts of both shows in the list that makes up the series we're kicking off tonight. I started watching the show regularly during the early days of Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo, just after the firing of Jean Douminian, and NBC used to show SCTV right after SNL. Those two shows kept me up until well after 2:00 a.m. every Saturday night for years. They also spurred me to really pay attention to these performers who seemed to be so versatile.
When Eddie Murphy made the jump to films, it was amazing to watch. Of course he became a movie star. Why wouldn’t he? It was ironic that his early films were all rated R, since many of his most hardcore fans were like me, barely in puberty when he broke big. I was 14 the year his breakout hit, "Beverly Hills Cop", was released. No matter. I saw the film a half dozen times in the theater anyway, just like I kept stashed copies of his albums in case my parents found one. I’d have back-ups. No one was going to keep me from seeing or hearing whatever Eddie did. He had proven himself on the small screen, and I desperately wanted to see him on the bigscreen, too. I felt the same way that older fans must have felt when they saw "Animal House" for the first time, or "Foul Play", or "Meatballs". It felt like comedy was finally for us. It was exciting to see these stars that felt like an underground secret suddenly launch into the mainstream so successfully. Belushi’s fans, or Murray’s, or Chevy’s, or Eddie’s... it didn’t matter. For all of us, it was like our friends were suddenly famous. SNL fostered this weekly connection to these comedic presences, and there was no denying how effective it was as a showcase for rising talent. In those days, it was still a progression. Actors were concerned about doing the show well first and foremost. It hadn’t become the pit stop en route to a movie career that it is now. There was a purity that is missed.
Keep in mind... some of the performers on SNL actually made films before starting on the show. This doesn’t disqualify the films from the list. This articles series is meant, over time, to be as complete a reference as possible. Randy Quaid is one of those guys who was in a million films, and even got an Oscar nomination, before he ever set foot on the SNL stage. We’ve included them all.
As long as Lorne Michaels keeps bringing new comic talent to the small screen, Hollywood will continue poaching his talent pool. As you read these articles every Friday night, I hope you find some small gems you’ve never heard of and that you end up having some great viewing experiences. I also hope we save you some of the pain of the worst of these films.
Mainly, though, I hope this creates some sort of perspective and helps SNL find its proper place in the history of film. There’s never been a better relationship between the big and small screens, and there probably never will be. Year in and year out, the film continues to be a strong source of new talent, and this weekend offers up an interesting contrast in how people make the jump from the small screen to the big screen using SNL as their springboard. The most obvious way you can use SNL as a launching pad is by literally taking one of your characters or sketches and turning it into a feature film, and this weekend, Will Forte's finally getting his turn at bat with "MacGruber."
As I write this, it's Saturday evening, and it looks like "MacGruber" has already tanked.
That's a shame, since I think the film actually works
. It's not a great film or an enduring film, but it's funny, and in the end, isn't that the main focus of any comedy? Isn't that the goal? Yes, it's great when a comedy can do more than just offer up laughs, but I don't need every comedy to be a Billy Wilder-style classic, with depth and heart and brains above and beyond the laughs. I appreciate that Judd Apatow and his collaborators push their own films to be more than "just" funny, but I also occasionally want to watch a film that just makes me laugh like a hyena, end to end. "MacGruber" didn't quite pull that off, but it tried, and I can respect that. It's interesting to watch Will Forte as the lead in a film, since I think he's anything but a typical leading man. Odd and soft and strange, Forte projects a profound derangment that "MacGruber" makes excellent use of, and the film allows for more quirk to the character than any of the sketches ever did. More importantly, the film offers a really solid lead role to Kristen Wiig
, who I think is one of the most interesting performers on the show right now. She's not like any other actress to graduate from SNL that I can think of, and her comedy tends to play bigger the more intimate and particular the character she's playing.
Neither Forte nor Wiig seem to be playing themselves, though, and that's one of the things that makes them very different from many of the earlier SNL alumni. Forte and Wiig are the sort of performers who vanish into roles rather than trying to bend each role to be a reflection of themselves. It's a hard line to walk for many performers, and a good example would by Mike Myers
, who had one of the biggest SNL-spin-off hits with his "Wayne's World" film. Myers has always talked about what a role model Peter Sellers was, and to some extent, I can see the influence. Myers seems to be a bit of an empty bag, and whatever role he's playing is what fills him up. He has a small repertoire of voices and types that he continually draws on, and as a result, the more Myers works, the more we feel like we've seen it before. There are rhythms to his jokes that are the same, no matter what role he's playing, and there are voices he loves to use over and over. Part of me still wonders what would have happened if Chris Farley had lived long enough to complete his role in "Shrek
," since he was the one who was originally cast. I think Farley could have made the character even more beloved had he actually played it. There was something innocent in Chris that made people respond to him, and I think it would have made a good fit with the character of Shrek.
With Myers, though, he's basically playing a riff on his own Fat Bastard and his omni-purpose Scottish voice, and there's never really been a time when Shrek didn't feel like Mike Myers. The same is true of Eddie Murphy as Donkey. It's funny, it's a good use of Eddie's energy for a family audience, but it is Eddie Murphy doing patter more than anything else. Myers and Murphy are of the school of SNL comics who have always had such enormous personalities that it is very, very difficult for them to vanish into films. As I mentioned at the start of this piece, there was a hunger for Eddie Murphy on the bigscreen at the start of his career, and the films that have endured are the ones where the Eddie Murphy we all loved is front and center. "48 HRS," "Beverly Hills Cop," "Trading Places," "Coming To America"... these are movies where Murphy is Murphy. If you watch "Mulan" and "Shrek" back to back, there's no essential difference between the characters that Murphy played. They're both wise-cracking sidekick animals, they each score some of the best laughs of the film, and they both sound exactly like the performer, without even an attempt to submerge his identity.
Could that be part of the problem with "MacGruber"? Even if people laugh at the sketch on TV, there's very little about the concept that demands a theatrical experience, and Forte is so good at being invisible from role to role that he brings no captive audience with him. Same thing with Wiig. I adore her work, but I worry that it's going to be tough to sell a movie to an audience that doesn't feel like they know who she is. They recognize her, but she's so good as slipping from one skin to another, from character to character, that a film where she is front and center will ultimately live or die based on its concept, since the audience has no idea who they'll see when they step into the theater.
As this series continues, we'll be looking back at similar titles or chunks of an actor's filmography or we'll be contrasting a hit and a failure that both were aiming at the same target. We'll be discussing behind-the-scenes names like Howard Shore, who was the SNL musical director long before he became David Cronenberg's favorite Oscar-winning composer. We'll even do interviews that will run here that will be more about careers and long-term views than just promoting a new release.
For now, though, imagine it’s 11:30 on Saturday night, and you hear that same phrase from the screen you’ve been hearing for over 30 years now...
“Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!”
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