When I first heard about the premise of Chernobyl Diaries I was like Channing Tatum in 21 Jump Street: "F*ck science!" Honestly extreme tourism? People pay for a trip to Pripyat — an abandoned city near the site of one of the worst nuclear disaster in history — for some vacation photos? Well it is possible and people actually do it despite the lingering radiation and other serious dangers but hopefully none of them are as painfully dumb as the characters in Diaries.
Jesse McCartney is Chris the sensible little brother who really would have preferred to stick with the plan: a day trip to Moscow where he'd pop the question to his girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Dudley). His older brother Paul (Jonathan Sadowski) is a bit of a bad boy horndog with a taste for adventure who insistst they and their recently dumped friend Amanda (Devin Kelly) go on an exciting trip to Pripyat instead. Amanda is also a photographer of sorts because she has a fancy camera and is taking photos of everything. Other than that we know almost nothing about any of the characters (although Paul does note that "the chicks are f*cking amazing"). They are later joined by Michael (Nathan Phillips) and Zoe (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) who prove to be equally forgettable.
Paul knows how to party so he leads Chris Natalie and Amanda to a sketchy office to set up their trip to Pripyat. The tour guide is named what else Yuri (Dimitri Diatchenko) and he even has a dingy sign on the wall that reads "Yuri's Extreme Travel" and lots of photos of him in military garb. He's built like a brick house — but he's no match for the ridiculousness that awaits them.
The build-up to what they do find is interminable especially given what non-horrors await. At one point I was hoping it would turn out to be something similar to The Happening but no such luck. Just a bunch of bald zombie-types lurking in the mist and gnawing on human flesh! Although there's something to be said for leaving scary stuff lurking in the shadows it's also a good idea to establish enough tension beforehand so that we actually care about what is supposed to be scaring us.
According to writer/producer Oren Peli a good deal of the dialogue was improvised which is a bit of a relief as the actors drop gems like "What exactly happened in Chernobyl?" and "Nature has reclaimed its rightful home " as well as tidbits like "Stop being a p*ssy" and "Maybe there's a gun in here!" This is director Bradley Parker's first feature and although he does occasionally have trouble keeping the camera steady he doesn't rely on shaky-cam "found footage " for the most part.
Naturally some people are offended that filmmakers would use a human tragedy as the backdrop of a horror movie but plenty of movies use tragic events for fodder. They should be more offended that it's just so boring.
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.