— Hope springs eternal. That's why people keep buying goldfish. It's why there are still Cubs fans. And it's certainly why there are still "Saturday Night Live" movies.
When "MacGruber" comes out on May 21, it will be the 11th time an "SNL" bit has been spun off into a movie. Of those 11 movies, two — "The Blues Brothers" and "Wayne's World" — have endured. The other nine have not, so much. And not only have they not endured, but about half of them were flops, including the rather legendary stinkers "It's Pat" and "The Ladies Man."
Nevertheless, here comes "MacGruber," based on the one-joke Will Forte sketches in which his "MacGyver"-inspired character is given a deadline to defuse a bomb, gets distracted, and does something else until the bomb goes off.
That's the joke. That's the whole thing.
And even though nobody thinks much these days about "A Night At The Roxbury," or "Superstar," or even the movie made from the iconic "Coneheads" sketches, MacGruber is getting the big-screen treatment. Not only that, but they're risking making an "SNL" movie about a sketch that prominently features bombs. They're not just optimistic — that's tempting the writers of cutting headlines, wherever they may be.
Could it actually ... be good?
But here's the real surprise: "MacGruber" screened at the South by Southwest film festival, and it was pretty well received. Popular movie site Cinematical, for instance, called it "a gleefully silly action parody that doesn't run out of steam before it's over." And a critic for IFC.com, the web site of the Independent Film Channel, said it "more often than not delivers the goods."
"More often than not"? Most sketches on "SNL" don't succeed that often, and they only have to come up with three minutes or so of material. Is this possible? Can "MacGruber," of all things, be the film to break the post-"Wayne's World" drought that's been plaguing the "SNL" movie dynasty since the year Bill Clinton was inaugurated?
How could "MacGruber," a sketch with far fewer jokes than "Wayne's World" and far less great music to goose itself with than "The Blues Brothers," possibly hatch a film that could run 99 minutes and leave people feeling happy?
On closer inspection, it's not quite as unlikely as it appears. Much like both "Wayne's World" and "The Blues Brothers," "MacGruber" taps into an entire vein of pop culture beyond the bit itself. Several of them, in fact: The '80s. Action sequences. Movie/TV heroes. Bumblers. There's somewhere to go beyond the four walls of the slapped-together set.
By contrast, when you envision a bit like "It's Pat," which really had no attached cultural context and got all its laughs from the single idea of trying to guess whether Pat was a man or a woman, it's hard to imagine who you could put around Pat, or what situations you could place Pat in, that would be funny. After all, you can't just send Pat into a series of settings — the bank, a cocktail party, a crowded elevator — for an hour and a half while people try to figure out whether he or she is a man or a woman.
Or think about "A Night At The Roxbury," based on the head-bobbing nightclub brothers played by Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan: they're so specific to those circumstances that it's not obvious what else they might do with a day, and the sketch doesn't suggest what would be funny about them when they're not listening to music and hitting on women — which, again, does not constitute 90 minutes of material.
Sketch has potential
MacGruber, on the other hand, could lift right out of his sketches and into an entire world of mullets and explosions and incompetent-hero jokes. Just as it's easy to imagine that Wayne and Garth might go upstairs from their basement and might indeed tussle over whether their cable-access show should sell out, it's reasonably easy to imagine MacGruber fighting the villains to obtain the prize and save the world. So just in concept, it does seem like a somewhat better idea than other sketches-turned-movies.
"MacGruber" might also get a boost from Will Forte, who spent years as more of a utility player than a breakout comedy star. He's been on "Saturday Night Live" since 2002, and has worked on "30 Rock" and "How I Met Your Mother."
But he's never gotten the attention that Jimmy Fallon was getting when Forte arrived in 2002 or that Andy Samberg gets now. He's never carried himself like he was trying to build a career on a handful of catchphrases, and that might give him more durability.
Of course, the vexing thing about trying to nail down what makes one of these movies a success and makes others failures is that audience responses to comedy can be freakishly hard to predict. Around the time of "Wayne's World" and then the Austin Powers films, there were those who believed Mike Myers could do no wrong. But then he wandered off to do voice work in the "Shrek" movies, and he made "The Cat In The Hat," and by the time he tried to come back with the most Mike-Myers-ish movie he'd made in years, 2008's "The Love Guru," it didn't go well at all, either critically or commercially.
But MacGruber seems like a more movie-friendly character than some, and Forte seems like a less gimmicky performer than some. But if, in fact, "MacGruber" is better received than many that came before, it might just be that after 18 post-Wayne years of throwing sketches at the wall hoping something sticks, "SNL" finally ran into the law of averages.