Finding His Forte Case File #199: The Brothers Solomon/MacGruber
When Will Forte commits to a role he really commits. There’s no distance or protective irony. When Forte goes all in, he really goes all in. Will Ferrell commits to a similar degree, but he at least has the safety of a persona to fall back on. Forte doesn’t have that: He disappears inside characters that sometimes blur the line between amusing and excruciatingly irritating, like Congressman Tim Calhoun, a deeply disturbed politician and Weekend Update guest who inadvertently betrays a lifetime of sordid deeds and deep dysfunction every time he opens his mouth.
Forte’s lack of a clear persona proved problematic when he made the leap to the big screen with 2007’s The Brothers Solomon, which he also wrote. For guys like Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, and Ferrell, making the trip from television to film simply meant transferring their clear-cut personas from one medium to another. For Forte, the trek from television to film has proven much trickier. Of the thousands of films that have received wide domestic theatrical release in the States over the past three decades, only 15 had smaller opening weekends than The Brothers Solomon, according to boxofficemojo. Delgo made more money on its opening weekend than The Brothers Solomon, and I’m not entirely sure I didn’t make up Delgo specifically for this column.
The Brothers Solomon doubled as both a test balloon to determine Forte and co-star Will Arnett’s viability as cinematic leading men and a shot at redemption for director Bob Odenkirk following the twin debacles of Run Ronnie Run (which, to be fair, he co-wrote and starred in but did not direct) and Let’s Go To Prison. It was an opportunity to prove that one of the comic minds behind the brilliant Mr. Show hadn’t inexplicably lost his touch.
Odenkirk learned a lot creatively, if not commercially, from Let’s Go To Prison, described by screenwriters Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant in a recent interview on The Nerdist as a terrific movie that got fatally compromised by its final cut. In an interview with The A.V. Club before the film’s release, Odenkirk said, “When people go to the movies, they want to laugh and smile and be happy, and one thing I feel great about with The Brothers Solomon is it’s an extremely likable film. The characters are really up. They’re impossibly upbeat.” He is not exaggerating. Just how happy are the titles characters in The Brothers Solomon? They’re so deliriously happy that they spend the entire opening credit sequence smiling. They’re not smiling in a series of photographs or smiling in a series of different situations. They’re facing the camera from odd angles and smiling with a lunatic abandon the film shares in its strongest moments.
Arnett and Forte wear giant smiles throughout The Brothers Solomon, but they’re weird smiles. They’re not infectious smiles; they’re the kind that make strangers wonder just what you’re so goddamned upbeat about. Arnett and Forte aren’t just happy in The Brothers Solomon. They’re suspiciously happy. The Brothers Solomon is never better than during its opening credits, which are sheer filmic pleasure. It’s a testament to Arnett and Forte’s magnetism that they can confidently hold the screen without doing anything other than radiating inexplicable joy.
The Brothers Solomon zippily cycles through a fuck-ton of exposition in its first two minutes by having the brothers fill out an online form that conveniently spills out their backstory. Following the death of their mother, Arnett and Forte’s father (Lee Majors) took them to live in the Arctic, where the young men were raised in a vacuum. Their father tried to socialize them through what the brothers cheerfully refer to as “puppetry-based sex education” and “friendship simulation” but succeeded only in making them hopelessly dependent upon each other. Arnett and Forte are paragons of dewy, innocent wholesomeness in a sinful and cynical world.
Arnett here plays an idiot variation on the smarmy alpha-male he perfected on Arrested Development. He’s just as undeservedly cocky as Gob Bluth, but sadness, sweetness, vulnerability, and a palpable sense of desperation set his character apart. He conceives of himself as a ladies’ man, but his idea of seduction involves hanging out at the grocery and buying food for attractive women in hopes they’ll reciprocate his affection. To outsiders, the brothers’ sweetness looks awfully creepy, even downright unnerving. There’s a great line in The 40-Year-Old Virgin where Seth Rogen says he’s sure Steve Carell is a nice guy and all, but he sometimes suspects he’s a serial killer. In Brothers Solomon, Arnett and Forte ride the creepily nice/serial killer divide hard, which might not have helped the film commercially.
Arnett and Forte’s deliriously happy existences are shaken up when they receive two key pieces of information: They have a late fee at the video store and something is horribly wrong with their father at the hospital. In their minds, both problems are roughly equivalent in significance. In a genius gag, the brothers rush over to the video store to contest the late fee, because they agree that’s what their father would want. The gag would be inspired if it stopped there, but The Brothers Solomon pushes it further. First, Arnett tells the woman in front of him, “Excuse me. We just found out that our father is dealing with some pretty heavy medical issues, possibly dying, so we really need to dispute these late charges as fast as we can.” Then it turns out the brothers have a free credit coming to them. The brothers could have seen their father before he slipped into a coma if only they hadn’t rented Finding Forrester with their free credit.
At their father’s bedside, the brothers discover that his dying wish is for a grandson. The two men are suddenly filled with a newfound sense of purpose. Forte finds the perfect specimen to carry his and Arnett’s child in a zaftig, unattached woman he praises for her corpulence, but she’s hit by a bus and killed in the film’s most jarring misstep. The Brothers Solomon’s blinkered sweetness is its greatest asset, so a gag that mean can’t help but feel out of place.
The brothers eventually find a surrogate in Kristen Wiig, but the film is so tightly clued-in to the tiny, hermetic two-person universe of Arnett and Forte that it has nothing for her or her boyfriend (Chi McBride) to do but play straight men to Arnett and Forte’s dumb-and-dumber routine. Yet within Forte and Arnett’s relationship there is a world of wonder and ingenuity. The Brothers Solomon’s intermittent genius lies in the details. It’s filled with wonderful moments and brilliant stand-alone gags, like Arnett asking a hot neighbor played by Malin Ackerman specifically out on a nighttime date.
Late in The Brothers Solomon, there is a gag so gorgeous it singlehandedly redeems the film from its periodic missteps: The brothers hire a plane to trail a banner that makes one last desperate appeal to an AWOL Wiig to let them have the baby inside her womb instead of her raising it with McBride. The brothers agree that conveying the message this way is expensive and brevity is key, yet when onlookers begin reading the sky banner, it goes on and on and on and on. And then it goes on a little further, just for good measure. It’s a textbook case of The Rake Effect. At first it’s funny how long the message is. Then it becomes a little trying. Then it becomes tedious. Then it becomes really annoying before it comes full circle and becomes hilarious again.
I don’t want to oversell The Brothers Solomon. It’s not a great film, but there are moments of comic greatness within it. It’s exactly the kind of weird, unloved little orphan we like to highlight here at My Year Of Flops, a film of considerable strengths and equally substantial weaknesses. The Brothers Solomon is ultimately saved by the fundamental sweetness of the central relationship, even if the edges get a little fuzzy.
The Brothers Solomon answered questions of Forte’s viability as a leading man with, “Oh hell no!!!” But Forte wasn’t yet ready to concede defeat. In 2010, the long-dormant machine that is Saturday Night Live Films roared back into action for the first time in nearly a decade to give the world MacGruber, the feature-film adaptation of Forte’s cultishly adored MacGyver parody.
On Saturday Night Live, the joke was that Forte’s MacGruber never saved the day: In crisis situations, he invariably found himself distracted by something, and apparently perished dramatically by the end of each episode. It’s tricky enough to build a feature film out of a sketch; but the MacGruber pieces were less proper sketches than fractions of sketches, little comic niblets that never had an opportunity to wear out their welcome. No one watching a MacGruber sketch found themselves thinking, “Man, I wish this went on 85 minutes longer and featured backstory, exposition, and a conventional three-act structure.”
Nonetheless, Forte and director Jorma Taccone (of Lonely Island and Hot Rod fame) had a clear, strong vision for MacGruber. They set out to make a film that captured the beats, themes, motifs, and style of a cheeseball ’80s action movie so precisely and with such affection that MacGruber could be mistaken for a lost ’80s Cannon action movie itself, protagonist aside. Unfortunately, Forte and Taccone’s clear, strong vision for MacGruber looks an awful lot like Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s vision for Team America: World Police minus the puppets. True, the South Park duo’s cult classic was inspired by Michael Bay movies more than Cannon schlock or ’80s action television shows, but when it comes to parodying the tropes and conventions of macho, chest-beating action movies, Team America: World Police did it first and best.
That’s part of the problem with Forte’s strikingly original visions: They tend to overlap with others’ strikingly original visions. The Brothers Solomon owes a substantial debt to Dumb And Dumber, while MacGruber resembles Team America closely enough to suffer by comparison. Then again, what wouldn’t suffer by comparison to Team America: World Police? It’s one of the smartest, funniest satires of recent years. MacGruber doesn’t aim quite so high; it’s less interested in satirizing American foreign policy at its most needlessly gung-ho than in spoofing the conventions of action movies. Its satire is stylistic rather than political.
MacGruber plays it so straight that its opening pre-credits sequence could easily pass for what it’s spoofing. The filmmakers get all the details right, from the glowering heavy played by a slumming big name (that would be Val Kilmer as Dieter Von Cunth) to the anxious opening dateline. But getting the details right doesn’t always serve the comedy. Then again, sometimes it does, as with an opening-credit sequence that succinctly and gloriously summarizes the man, the myth, the legend that is MacGruber. It begins with an incongruously somber, militant rendition of the MacGruber theme song that makes it sound like a funeral dirge despite lyrics like “MacGruber: The guy’s a fucking genius!” before the title character performs a rapturous saxophone solo while bathed in a golden halo of light.
With that silliness out of the way, we meet our hero in an extended parody of Rambo III that would feel a little thin even if it weren’t spoofing a film from 1988: After Kilmer kills Forte’s fiancée (Maya Rudolph) at their wedding and leaves him for dead, Forte fakes his own death to lead a peaceful life in Ecuador, until mentor Powers Boothe tracks him down to tell him that Kilmer has procured a nuclear warhead and Forte is the only man who can stop him.
To aid him in his quest, Forte recruits a crack squad of operatives in a sequence that adroitly spoofs putting-the-team-together montages. As in the opening credits, Forte and his co-writers (Taccone and John Solomon) get everything right, from the rampant, unspoken homoeroticism that passes between team members to action names like “Vernon Freedom,” “Tug Phelps,” “Tanker Lutz,” and “Brick Hughes” to the absurdly macho endeavors Forte finds his team engaged in when he comes calling. The payoff for the putting-the-team-together montage comes when the entire team dies in a C4 explosion due to Forte’s carelessness. It’s a textbook case of comic misdirection; the guys here to save the day become anonymous casualties in the first act. It’s a clever gag, but it would feel a lot fresher if Reno 911!: Miami hadn’t done a variation on it first by having Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson show up at the beginning, only to maliciously kill him off before he can engage in any heroics.
Forte fully commits to his character’s bone-deep desperation and complete lack of self-respect. After he’s taken off the case following that unfortunate C4 mix-up, Forte desperately begs straight-arrow Ryan Phillippe to join his team, tearfully pleading, “Look, I will suck your dick. I will suck your fucking dick. I will do it. Just join my team. I’ll suck your dick. You can fuck me or get fucked by me. You can watch me fuck something. Just point at something in the room and I’ll fuck it for you. C’mon! Just tell me what you want me to fuck! Just tell me what you want me to fuck!” That’s perhaps the least dignified monologue in the history of action movies, comic or otherwise, and Forte commits to it with every fiber of his being.
I didn’t really enjoy Phillippe’s performance the first time I saw MacGruber. He seemed like a drain on the film. But I warmed up to him this time around. Phillippe’s character serves two crucial purposes: he’s an ace straight man to Forte’s unapologetic silliness and an audience surrogate. In the clip below, for example, we learn a little more than we’d like to know about the way Forte’s mind operates through Phillippe nosing around Forte’s belongings. I like how this scene suggests that Forte isn’t just eccentric or bizarre; he’s pretty much insane.
Phillippe is the filter through which we see a “hero” whose actions look anything but heroic: Forte is so cheap he parks his surveillance van seven blocks away from a stake out to avoid having to plug a meter. And, in my favorite running gag, Forte always takes his car stereo with him when he leaves the car so it won’t be stolen. Heroism is all well and good, but there’s no point in wasting money unnecessarily.
When it comes to spoofing the soft-focus cheesiness of ’80s sex sequences, MacGruber has one shortcoming: a terminal dearth of puppet sex. MacGruber cannot hope to compete with Team America: World Police’s promise of hot puppet-on-puppet action, so it substitutes something equally impressive and unusual: ghost-fucking. Forte is so filled with guilt upon taking the virginity of team member Kristin Wiig that he immediately races to the graveyard to confess to his dead fiancée. One thing leads to another, and it isn’t long until we’re treated to full-on human-on-ghost action. I recall this gag from the theatrical version, but I don’t think it went on nearly as long as it does in the unrated version, which I recommend highly. It’s remarkable how a little pointed profanity can improve a film.
Like MacGyver, MacGruber never uses a gun. In the film we learn why: he doesn’t know how. Whereas a noble commitment to not carrying firearms defined MacGyver, Forte is just incompetent. Once he starts using a gun in a climactic shoot out he shifts perspective radically and becomes a convert. That’s just one inspired, sick joke in and underrated film—and film career—that’s full of them.
I came to appreciate MacGruber on a new level with a second viewing. Forte fills in the broad outlines of his Richard Dean Anderson parody with a multitude of beautiful little details, like his character’s strong, oft-repeated anti-tipping stance and firm, albeit delusional, belief that offering to perform oral sex can solve any crisis. Though critics and audiences violently rejected both of Forte’s forays into film, there is a strong, singular, detail-oriented authorial voice behind both The Brothers Solomon and MacGruber that makes them more than the sum of their sometimes shaky, sometimes remarkable, always silly parts. It may not be good business, but I hope some adventurous studio grants Forte a third commercial strike as a leading man and as a screenwriter.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success (both)