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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Why don’t films from ‘Saturday Night Live’ work?

As of this writing, MacGruber — you know, the new film based on the recurring one-joke Saturday Night Live sketch — is at an astonishing 100 percent Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. And not even thanks to “reviews” by “critics” you’ve never heard of at nonexistent small-town newspapers who’ll say anything about any movie if it means they get their name on a poster. No, it’s a handful of reactions from respectable writers from respectable outlets who saw the movie at SXSW.

But of course, Freshness is relative. CinemaBlend’s Josh Tyler starts his review with:

MacGruber is not, even for a second, half as clever as the SNL sketches it’s based upon.

and still it warrants a Fresh. Perhaps because the movie did not elicit seizures, vomiting, and then deep coma: hey, it’s not that bad!
I’ll be delighted if MacGruber is actually funny, but I’m not holding out hope. The trailer makes me cringe — I stopped finding poop funny in kindergarten (and no movie since Caddyshack has been able to deploy a poop joke that actually worked on a grownup level). My press screening of the film doesn’t begin until 7:30pm on Thursday, which means that by the time I get home and can start thinking about writing a review, public midnight shows will already be starting.

But mostly, I’m not hopeful because sketches from Saturday Night Live almost never work on film. It’s been ten years since the last one — 2000’s The Ladies Man, which Tim Meadows hopes you’ve forgotten all about — and no one seems to have learned the lesson of the long string of flops in the 1990s for films based on SNL sketches. (It’s Pat? Stuart Saves His Family? Why?) Only Wayne’s World worked, and it seems obvious to me why it worked when the others didn’t: Both the movie and the sketches it was developed from were about compelling, fully rounded characters, not one-note caricatures. (The Blues Brothers worked, too, but it’s a whole different creature: the boys didn’t appear in sketches on the show, just in musical numbers. It’s also notable that the SNL folks of the 1980s didn’t even attempt to replicate the success of that movie.)

MacGruber is not a compelling, fully rounded character. But surely the nice people at Saturday Night Live can see that, too, and can see from the tattered history of the SNL movie that the concept of sketch-to-film is a recipe for disaster.

So what are they seeing that I’m not? Why even bother with a MacGruber movie? Or, conversely: Why don’t films from Saturday Night Live work?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)



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  • JoshDM

    Came here to debunk this with Wayne’s World, but was summarily beaten by the other half of the blog post.

    Was it sad that I was the only one in the college theater laughing hysterically as he drove the car upstate to the tune of “Mrs. Robinson”? Everyone else only laughed when the radio cut out when he went under the bridge.

    My parents required me to watch The Graduate before going to college.

  • JoshDM

    Also I believe, had he still been alive, Belushi would have been against doing a Samurai Futaba movie.

  • doa766

    the sketch when McGruber find out about the economic crisis was brilliant

  • RyanT

    Just counting down when the inevitable Laser Cats movie will happen.

  • Happy Fun Ball: the Movie is still stuck in Development Hell.

    Part of the problem with SNL sketches getting bumped into feature length stories is that they work better AS sketches, as 8 minutes of quirky character flaws and embarrassments. Extending it all into 90 minutes doesn’t work: it’s like taking a Ray Bradbury short story and forcing Ray to add 250 more pages to package it as a novel.

    You’re right to point out the few successes for how they succeed: the characters used (the Blues Brothers, Wayne and Garth) are defined by open-ended traits (Jake and Elwood’s love of blues, Wayne and Garth Gen-X hyper-awareness of tropes) that allow for a broad range of side characters, plot points and whatnot. The joy of Wayne’s World isn’t the plot – Can Wayne keep his job and his friends after a joyless t.v. executive takes over his cable show – it’s in the endless array of cultural jokes – 70s rock! Bugs Bunny! Product Placement! Scooby ending!

    Everything else SNL-based – Superstar, the Ladies Man, It’s Pat – rely on characters that are more rigidly defined. And the things that define them – the Superstar girl is obsessed with fame, the Ladies Man is cluelessly oversexed, Pat is of non-definable gender – are overly embarrassing and don’t necessarily make them sympathetic.

  • JoshDM

    it’s like taking a Ray Bradbury short story and forcing Ray to add 250 more pages to package it as a novel.

    @me lol @ veiled reference to The Box.

  • Keith

    Wondering if it has done so well critically so far because the critics went into it with disasterous expectations and were surprised that it was reasonably funny. Too many more of those and people will go in with high expectations and be disappointed. I’ll wait for Maryann’s review (and wider selection of reviews) before I even consider ever watching this movie.

  • Becky

    This might not have anything to do with it but… it has to be humour that can ‘travel’.
    Namely that you know people like that or it’s something that’s universally funny.

    I mention this as a slightly clueless British person who only really knows MacGyver from the ‘Stargate: SG-1’ references. So I fear that this may go straight over my head. Then again – most UK comedies don’t seem to ‘breakout’ – although, please feel free to correct me!

    I agree with PaulW’s comments on ‘Wayne’s World’ mainly because it was something that travelled – and the use of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was just *inspired* (and the remaining members of the band, thanked Mike Myers etal for the hat tip too.)

  • Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    It is at 100% because they are no-name critics that the filmmakers let see the film becuase they knew they could rely on them for a fresh rating. When anyone more than an IQ of 80 gets to see it, those numbers will drop. At least I hope they do.

  • Yes! The McGruber trailer was cringe-worthy and I did not find all that funny! Probably the only good film that has anything to do with SNL is Mean Girls which was written by Tina Fey and features stars some SNL regulars like Amy Poehler, Tim Meadows and Fey herself.

  • Chris

    You can’t even really count the Blues Brothers. IIRC, they were NEVER the property of SNL, but only of Aykroyd and Belushi. When on SNL, they were “featured.” And they were a thing before they ever appeared on SNL (again, IIRC).

    Andy Samberg is the only one left doing original work, and I hear he’s leaving soon. Good for him, frankly.

  • MaryAnn

    It is at 100% because they are no-name critics that the filmmakers let see the film becuase they knew they could rely on them for a fresh rating. When anyone more than an IQ of 80 gets to see it, those numbers will drop. At least I hope they do.

    No, it really isn’t (as I noted in the OP). They may not be the most famous of critics, but they’re not quote whores, and they were not hand-picked by the studio: all the reviews are from the South by Southwest Film Festival.

    I really wish people would read the post before commenting.

  • joliman

    I liked Stuart, but understand why I’m probably alone in this.

  • misterb

    For the same reason, all pre-packaged, picked-up on the basis of a “high concept” movies don’t work. Poor writing, poor directing and poor acting.
    If McGruber works (it’s down to 88% Fresh at this writing), it will probably be good writing and good directing – no offense, Will Forte.

  • The Blues Brothers worked, too, but it’s a whole different creature: the boys didn’t appear in sketches on the show, just in musical numbers. It’s also notable that the SNL folks of the 1980s didn’t even attempt to replicate the success of that movie.

    Well, eventually Dan Ackroyd gave in and made a sequel in 2000 with John Goodman as a Belushi substitute but it was so horrible I wouldn’t be a bit surprised, MaryAnn, if you deliberately blocked it out of your memory. And I remember reading an article back in the 1980s that suggested that there had been plans for a Blues Brothers sequel before that, but all those plans were canceled once Belushi died–the same way all plans for a Beetlejuice sequel got redlighted once the cast of the original movie got too famous to work for low salaries.

    And it’s worth noting–for better or worse–that both Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell are former SNL members–and they haven’t done too badly with their post-SNL film careers. Though none of their movies to date were directly based on a character they did for SNL–or at least, not on one that I know about…

  • RogerBW

    I think that comedy is tied to its length much more than any other sort of entertainment, and the SNL films are a good example. It’s very easy to pad out a film to its required running length by harping on the same joke to excess (where a live comic can read his audience and move on to the next thing).

    I’ve ranted here before about my response to Wayne’s World: I suspect that as a sketch, its flaws (i.e. the total lack of characterisation) would have been rather less obvious. (And of course in a sketch it’s easier to get away with stereotypes: you have to set things up quickly so that the audience knows what’s going on, and you don’t hang around long enough for the holes to be apparent.) Most sketch characters don’t work as people, and I think that’s exactly what a full-length film needs.

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