Opening in theaters on Friday, MacGruber is the latest in a seemingly endless line of Saturday Night Live-derived comedies that test the theatrical waters. Starring Will Forte as the anti-MacGyver, a guy who couldn't disable a bomb if his life depended on it (which it often does), the R-rated MacGruber cost a paltry $10 million to produce and doesn't appear to be much of a commercial risk for distributor Universal Pictures.
Since MacGruber is opening without advance screenings, it's impossible to say whether it's good or not. But the spotty track record for big-screen SNL comedies provides its own sort of caveat emptor. If you haven't grown tired of Forte's super-doofus dude yet, you'll probably dig his movie. And casting the reliably bonkers Val Kilmer as a bad guy named Dieter von Cunth (yes, "Dieter von Cunth") promises at least a few rude snickers.
But for every blockbuster like Wayne's World (1992), there's always a Night at the Roxbury (1998) or Ladies Man (2001) to piss on the SNL franchise. What separates a good SNL comedy from a bad one? It's hard to say, really. Back in 1980, nobody believed that a film devoted to the musical (and comic) shenanigans of John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd's Jake and Elwood Blues characters would work at feature length. After all, there's a huge difference between getting laughs in a seven-minute vignette and maintaining those guffaws for the duration of an entire movie.
Yet thanks to the comedy chops of director John Landis — hot off the success of National Lampoon's Animal House two years earlier — and a slew of musical guest stars (Aretha Franklin, James Brown, et al.), The Blues Brothers defied naysayers and became a box-office smash and future cult perennial.
Aykroyd didn't fare as well with Blues Brothers 2000 (1998) and Coneheads (1993), which reunited him with Jane Curtin to play the titular, late-'70s SNL staples. Opening more than a decade after the Coneheads' last tube appearance, its expiration date had long since passed.
In the interim, audience affection had transferred to a new generation of SNL characters. It's Pat, starring Julia Sweeney's androgynous nerd-nik, had one of the most amusing, if polarizing, characters in SNL history at its center, but still only managed a pitiful $61,000 in theatrical revenues.
Another wildly polarizing SNL character, Al Franken's self-help guru Stuart Smalley, didn't do much better. Directed by Harold Ramis (Groundhog Day), 1995's Stuart Saves His Family was certainly good and smart enough, but grossed less than a million dollars. It's Pat and Stuart remain two of the most inspired, under-appreciated, and yes, funny SNL movies, even if their appeal was probably too limited to attract a wide, non-TV audience.
Roxbury, Ladies Man, and Superstar (featuring Molly Shannon's deluded Catholic schoolgirl, Mary Katherine Gallagher) stunk up multiplexes largely because they were never more than one-joke, one-note comic creations. While none of them achieved breakout status, they did well enough — on micro-budgets, natch — for Lorne Michaels to keep chugging along in search of the next Wayne's World.
Which explains the existence of MacGruber. Check the weekend box-office chart on Monday morning to see how the public reacted.
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