MacGruber (Will Forte), a highly decorated soldier of fortune known for "making lifesaving inventions out of household materials," faked his death and went into hiding after his fiancée (Maya Rudolph) was killed at their wedding, likely by wealthy industrialist Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer), MacGruber's arch enemy. Years later, when the feds suspect Von Cunth (the h is silent) of stealing a nuclear weapon, MacGruber's old Army watcher, Col. James Faith (Powers Boothe), tracks down the retired operative to convince him that his country needs him.
"The game has changed!" MacGruber protests. The colonel's deadly serious rebuttal: "But the players are still the same!" So MacGruber returns, mulleted and toting a portable car stereo, circa early '90s, to put his unconventional methods to work preventing total nuclear disaster.
MacGruber is a feature-length film inspired by a Saturday Night Live skit, which often runs barely a minute and always ends when the title character fails to dismantle a bomb, causing the control room where he's trapped with his trusty sidekicks to explode. SNL often wedges more than one MacGruber sketch into a single episode, resurrecting its hero repeatedly without acknowledging his prior failures.
Rather than sticking to that construct, writers Forte, John Solomon and Jorma Taccone (who also directs) take their hero out of the doomed control room and give him a back story, a couple of love interests and actual narrative causality. And MacGruber, like a number of other 2010 movies such as Cop Out and Hot Tub Time Machine, turns to "bad" pop culture of the 1980s for inspiration, resurrecting music, fashion and character types of that decade for both mockery and commentary.
MacGruber, which was not formally screened for critics until the evening before its release, has an unusual tone for a contemporary comedy. Played as self-seriously as its '80s muses (think Miami Vice meets Cobra), there's no smirking Jim-from-The Office audience surrogate to hammer home the joke via reaction shot and no beats left open for the dopey giggling it inspires. You may miss one joke while still laughing at the last one — I certainly did, at the film's premiere at SXSW. There are gags in MacGruber — one involving a naked Forte and a stick of celery that is indicative of the film's gleefully juvenile body humor — but like Kevin Smith's self-knowing Cop Out, much of its comedy stems from the deadpan re-creation of an era's worth of blockbuster tropes.
Why the sudden rush to spin comedy from culture that wasn't meant to be funny then but can hardly be taken seriously now? When times are tough, the trend stories say, we crave cultural familiarity. But rather than look back through a rose-tinted lens, Cop Out, Hot Tub and MacGruber undercut the bravado of their inspirations. MacGyver and his '80s male-hero peers got away with everything and relied on their own near-divine intuition to get out of harm's way, and their charmed existence played at straight face value. MacGruber punctures such a fantasy. Maybe that's because all three films were made by consumers who aged into producers, plumbing the movies they loved in adolescence for material and then reshaping that material to reflect contemporary culture.
Forte and Taccone, like Hot Tub writer Josh Heald and the Cop Out writing team of Mark and Robb Cullen and director Kevin Smith, are in their mid- to late 30s, meaning that they would have been the teenage-male target audience for late-'80s/early-'90s action schlock. This crew also came of age at a time when ironic distance replaced over-the-top id as the ideal male attitude. Sincerity eventually became such a cultural liability that, by the '00s, even a children's franchise like Shrek was shot through the requisite wink.
Underground while that evolution was taking place, MacGruber has a case of what we could call Unfrozen Caveman Syndrome: He's forced to reconcile the difference between '80s ideals and 21st-century realities, without the two decades the rest of us had to process the change and compromise accordingly. That theme — the sudden awareness of the incompatibility between a wild, adolescent, possibility-packed past and the grounded, adult, failure-tainted present — is made more poignant in Hot Tub Time Machine, which references star and producer John Cusack's own dispiriting trajectory from a cool-rebel player in the '80s mold (One Crazy Summer, Say Anything) to a passionless casher of paychecks (2012, Must Love Dogs).
Call it self-reflexive self-loathing, but it's Cusack who gives the whole trend a tag line. "You're the patron saint of the totally fucked," he pep-talks Rob Corddry's bumbling badass in Hot Tub's climactic scene. "You can be the hero!"