Monday, November 08, 2010

Sunday Night Double Bill: MacGruber and OSS 117: Lost in Rio

In what’s fast becoming a habit, we rented two different movies to see in the new week, and were again surprised at the similarities between them. Here’s Sunday night’s Popcorn Fodder:


The hilariously incompetent secret agent is an old joke. From Inspector Clouseau to Johnny English, the bumbling buffoon who inexplicably makes good is a concept that’s graced our cinema screens in a dozen different forms. MacGruber – the new movie based on the Saturday Night Live sketch of the same name, is merely the latest.

There are many initial problems with the MacGruber concept – not least of which being that the movie is a spoof on a TV show (MacGyver) that hasn’t been on TV for over 20 years.

In addition, the narrative of the SNL skits was always centered around the same, single joke – that MacGruber, despite building an elaborate gadget out of handy household objects, always fails to stop the bomb exploding/mine collapsing/plane crashing or whatever other disaster is about to befall him. To spin that out over 90 minutes seemed implausible.

But it seems writers Jorma Taccone, Will Forte (who also stars as MacGruber) and John Solomon identified these sticky issues and addressed them as best they could. For a start, the similarities between MacGruber and MacGyver are kept to a minimum – with the two characters sharing only a mullet, a knack for gadgets and a dislike of firearms.

MacGruber's sartorial shortcomings are a source of much amusement

Instead of the clean-cut secret agent from the TV show, our MacGruber is a narcissistic, foul-mouthed sociopath oozing arrogance and incompetence in equal measure. Taken out of retirement to help track down a stolen nuclear bomb, MacGruber’s first accomplishment is to blow up his elite combat team with a sketchy batch of homemade explosives.

The real MacGyver could jerry-rig a solution out of almost anything. The running gag in MacGruber is that our hero unfailingly can't

Forced to team up with rival agent Dixon Piper (former heartthrob Ryan Phillippe, who Mummy Militant thought looked quite yummy in this role) and old flame Vicki St. Elmo (fellow SNL star Kristen Wiig) MacGruber stumbles his way from one misadventure to the next until he inexplicably manages to make good in the final showdown with bad guy Val Kilmer.

It’s all thoroughly predictable stuff, although far more entertaining than it should be. Despite an unhealthy reliance on toilet humor, foul language and cringe-inducing scenes of personal humiliation, the script of MacGruber will keep most people screeching with laughter throughout – even if some of those laughs involve turning to who ever is watching the movie with you and asking: “Did they really just go there?”

But despite the laughs, MacGruber suffers from one major flaw: The main character. Throughout comedy history, the unlikeable lead has been a comedy mainstay (just look at Blackadder or Basil Fawlty.) However, despite their flaws, there’s always been something ultimately admirable and redeeming about them.

MacGruber is, from top to bottom, just a horrible piece of work. Rude, arrogant and narcissistic, he’s a thoroughly unlikable character – using a fellow agent as a human shield (unaware he was wearing a bullet-proof vest) in one scene, and then plotting a scatological revenge against another after a road-rage incident.

You ultimately just feel dirty when asked to celebrate his victory in the final scenes.

Compared to other movies based on Saturday Night Live sketches, MacGruber redeems itself by being genuinely funny – but it will never be a comedy classic and is unlikely to stand up to repeat viewing. Definitely one for rental only.

OSS 117: Lost in Rio

This French movie was a totally unexpected discovery in the New Releases section of my local Blockbuster. Based on the novels of wildly prolific French author Jean Bruce, OSS 117: Lost in Rio is a James Bond spoof based on a franchise that actually predated James Bond (Bruce’s fictional secret agent Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath was invented 6 years before James Bond, and hit the cinema screens four years before Sean Connery did.)

A sequel, of sorts, to the litany of OSS 117 ‘eurospy’ films from the 50s and 60s, OSS 117: Lost in Rio stars French comedy star Jean Dujardin as the titular secret agent and sees him thrust into conspiracy in beautiful Rio de Janeiro.

In many respects, there are similarities between OSS 117: Lost in Rio and MacGruber – both spoof the secret agent genre, and focus on a hero who isn’t everything he’s cracked up to be. However, while MacGruber pushed the envelope too hard, OSS 117: Lost in Rio finds a pitch-perfect balance in sending up the quintessential spy movie.

In many respects, Jean Dujardin pulls off the ultimate tribute/parody of James Bond – much truer to the genre than Austin Powers or Johnny English. His secret agent is suave, handsome and every bit the equal of Sean Connery – thoroughly competent and merciless in his mission. However, he’s also a sexist, misogynistic dinosaur and much of the humor of the movie stems from his inadvertently offensive statements and stereotypically French chauvinism.

Jean Dujardin is magnificent as the suave secret agent Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath

OSS 117: Lost in Rio is shot beautifully on location, using the same techniques as the period spy thrillers from the 50s and 60s. Car chases are filmed in rear-projection, for example, and most camera angles are simple and straightforward. Iconic scenes from classic movies, including Hitchcock’s Vertigo and North by Northwest, are lovingly parodied right down to similar musical scores.

Although the humor is considerably more subtle than other spy spoofs, there's still plenty of action - both in and out of the bedroom

Much of the humor gets lost in translation, but there are some skits that transcend the language barrier – a low-speed chase through the corridors of a hospital stands out, as does a scene in which Agent de La Bath risks a hail of bullets to rescue a briefcase of money... Then returns for his camera... And finally his sports jacket... The ‘Bond girl’ is also noteworthy – a ravishing redhead played by Louise Monot.

Louise Monot is funny, sexy and competent as Mossad agent Dolorès Koulechov

All in all, OSS 117: Lost in Rio isn’t laugh-out-loud funny like MacGruber, but is much more enjoyable and I’ll eagerly watch it again. It’s a spy spoof for people who really love their spy movies, and explores new comedy territory while remaining loyal to the dozens of OSS 117 movies that preceeded it.

As de La Bath's CIA opposite number scoffs: "You're so fucking French."

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