Commercials for MacGruber have been airing for weeks proudly boasting quotes that refer to it as “the best SNL skit movie since Wayne’s World” and “arguably the best action-comedy since Beverly Hills Cop.” Such outsized blurbs — usually accompanied by miniscule attributions — have long been a sine qua non of movie marketing strategy but what makes MacGruber’s case unique is that its praise came not from the usual studio fluffers but from The Atlantic the venerable 150-year-old publication that counts the likes of Longfellow and Ralph Waldo Emerson among its founders. Calling anything “the best SNL skit movie since ...” may be faint praise akin to "You're the smartest stripper I've ever met " but it’s still impressive for a film based on a shtick that typically struggles to conjure enough laughs to fill a two-minute sketch.
And it’s true. MacGruber star Will Forte and director Jorma Taccone (who also co-wrote the film along with John Solomon) much like the character Richard Dean Anderson they mercilessly parody took the scrap that was their middling SNL sketch and somehow turned it into one of the funniest films of the year.
The film which pits the super-handy MacGruber against his sworn enemy a nuke-stealing terrorist named Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer gracefully entering the self-mocking stage of his career and selling it like a champ) works in part because it heartily exploits all the advantages unavailable to its television counterpart: a hard-R rating that lets it showcase among other things MacGruber’s unmatched throat-ripping skills and his willingness to suck a c**k to save American lives (let's see Jack Bauer try that); a script that clearly took more than a week — possibly as many as two — to construct; and guest stars who actually care enough to learn all of their lines. Forte's SNL co-star Kristen Wiig is fantastic as MacGruber's partner/love interest — a role more crucial to the comedy than you'd think — and even the much-maligned (by me mainly) Ryan Phillippe is pleasantly serviceable opposite Forte as his beleaguered straight man. In fact — dare I say it — he’s almost likable.
Don’t tell him I said that.
Meet Wheeler (Scott ) and Danny (Rudd) -- two salesmen who get to hawk a blue sugary caffeine-filled energy drink called Minotaur. Wheeler is a swingin’ KISS-lovin’ single guy who loves his job playing THE Minotaur while depressed Danny has settled into a nice mid-life crisis loathing just about anything and everyone. These two are just destined to become role models. And so after some very bad circumstances Wheeler and Danny do just that forced into 150 community service hours at a mentorship program. It’s either play big brother to a couple of kids or go to jail. Danny gets assigned to Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) a 16-year-old obsessed with Dungeons and Dragons medieval role play while Wheeler gets a 10-year-old foul-mouthed troublemaker named Ronnie (Bobb'e J Thompson). After one day jail isn’t looking half-bad. For a premise that sounds a bit shaky the cast of Role Models simply sell it. Thanks to the likes of Anchorman and 40 Year-Old Virgin Paul Rudd has found his niche as the go-to guy for deadpan humor. Seann William Scott too seems more mature this time finally shedding that American Pie smug arrogance he’s had to live with for so many years. Virgin’s Jane Lynch is hysterical as the head of the mentorship program Sturdy Wings an ex-addict who takes no crap. Elizabeth Banks (she’s in everything lately) also does a nice job as Danny’s girlfriend who has had it with his behavior. And the kids add to the flavor: Mintz-Plasse aka McLovin’ from Superbad gets to try something different as the geeky Lord of the Rings wannabe while newcomer Thompson plays the smartass kid who curses with a certain panache. Can you believe producer/writer/director Judd Apatow had nothing to do with Role Models? It seems to have many of his signature touches including a pretty hard R rating for a movie with kids in it. But actually Role Models comes from the minds of ex-The State members David Wain and Ken Marino along with Paul Rudd and a few other writers. And for once a long list of writers doesn’t spell trouble for the film; it seems to have only enhanced the comedy. The best part of Role Models has to be the medieval role-playing festival where all known D&D and LOTR enthusiasts come out in droves dressed in full gear ready to wage battle and clash rubber swords for their made-up countries’ supreme dominance. It really happens folks and to have front-row seats to this world is quite a comedic treat.
Dreamer is another one of those family films--based on a true story no less--that makes you feel guilty for not liking it because it means so well. The film revolves around the Cranes who have worked on their Kentucky horse farm for generations. But gifted horseman Ben Crane (Kurt Russell) loses his love for the job when the farm hits hard times. His estranged father Pop (Kris Kristofferson) feels like his son has given up unnecessarily. Even Ben’s young daughter Cale (Dakota Fanning) can’t get through to her dad. The only way this family can heal is by helping an injured horse named Sonya get ready for a seemingly impossible goal: to win the Breeders' Cup Classic. Say it together: “Awww!” At least the film gets it half right in its casting. Russell is perfect as the beleaguered Ben a man who needs a little inspiration to get back on track and he thankfully never takes it over the top. Same goes for Kristofferson who is aptly crusty and unwilling to give his son an inch--that is until his granddaughter and that darned horse melt his heart. And the family resemblance is uncanny; apparently the two actors have been told quite often how much they look like each other. The one misstep here is Fanning. Yes she is an extraordinarily gifted actress for her age but Cale should have been played by a happy sunny child. The oh-so-serious Fanning doesn’t really qualify. Also Elisabeth Shue as the mom is all wrong. A horse farmer’s wife? Please. Writer-director John Gatins takes a big gamble making his directorial debut with a movie about an underdog horse. First there’s the underdog part. This year seems a bit saturated with the plot device what with films like Cinderella Man and most recently Greatest Game Ever Played. Second there’s the whole horse thing. It’s just going to be hard to top the Oscar-nominated Seabiscuit--the quintessential true horse-racing movie to beat them all. True Dreamer is based on a true story and is nicely--albeit conventionally--framed. But the film isn’t unique in any way. It’s the same feel-good family stuff we’ve been swallowing all year. See? I told you I’d feel guilty for knocking it.