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You probably thought it was safe. You thought Will Ferrell had used up all his golden Hollywood brownie points after “Step Brothers” and that Judd Apatow and his ensemble of arrested adolescents had to find other work after that lame Adam Sandler-is-dying movie.
But when “The Hangover” had the bad fortune of being really funny (and nominated for shiny trophies!) and “Hot Tub Time Machine” put the gross and Crispin Glover back into the guy-centric, R-rated laugh riot, there was no way that gloriously stupid comedies were going into hibernation. Now that summer is about to begin, Hollywood is even more hellbent on bypassing brain cells and selling popcorn instead of picking off Oscar votes with earnest literary adaptations. “MacGruber,” a big budget comedy based on a “Saturday Night Live” spoof of a TV character that's long since been forgotten, is an appropriate opener for a season of silliness.
On “SNL,” Will Forte's MacGruber is a mullet-ed exaggeration of former TV hero MacGyver, with a penchant for defusing bombs and taking down bad guys with a bottle cap, toothpaste tube and a brown egg. During the quick sketches, MacGruber generally can't resolve some personal issue before being blown to bits. For the big screen MacGruber's tale is turned into a knowing, more than sporadically funny and most definitely profane parody of a Bruckheimer testosterone fest. Val Kilmer and his ponytail play bad guy Dieter Von Cunth (a juvenile foul name that should have been jettisoned after the first draft). Ryan Phillippe, as MacGruber's reluctant wingman, plays it straight. SNL pal Kristen Wiig is a swoony, eyeshadow-wearing love interest and bad guy bait.
The trick — and it's not an easy trick — to these movies is making the concept strong enough to hold up over time and support the jokes. “MacGruber” aims to make Forte and Wiig the loonies (though Wiig is nicely low key, darting her eyes and practically whispering her lines) and let everybody else be more or less realistic. The movie spares no expense in locations or gunfire or blinking hardware, which puts Forte's shtick in high relief. He finds some nice bits (the running one about his car radio is pitch perfect) and is unafraid to let a joke wander into uncomfortable territory (the sex scenes, for instance). Along those lines, “MacGruber” doesn't stray from the sprays of blood that usually come with every action film now. Fans of MacGruber as a sketch could easily find themselves repulsed.
The movie's twisted use of anthemic, action movie music is inspired. Forte's earnest, and one could even say strange, goofiness is winning. The expression on his face during a slow-mo gun battle in a warehouse is a one-of-a-kind comic feat. You know Ferrell rocketed out of “SNL” and built a huge audience on the hangdog charm that would eventually be revealed under his bluster. Forte is more of a nervous live wire at bottom and likely won't endear himself to as many as Ferrell. “MacGruber” might not be a franchise but there'll be many worse parading by on the big screen this summer.