This week, Jake Gyllenhaal returned to the Saturday Night Live hosting gig for the first time in 15 years, or “400 Marvel movies ago,” as he said in the monologue. Back then, Gyllenhaal was basking in acclaim from Brokeback Mountain and angling to become an action star. But his first SNL stint was plenty adventurous: As he recalled, he performed his first monologue in “full drag, singing a song from Dreamgirls,” noting it was “probably the least problematic thing in that episode.”
Gyllenhaal returned to the show, he explained, because he’d become too focused on Method acting and “kind of forgot how to have fun.” “Acting is a stupid job,” he says, one that “should be about embracing joy.” (Comic bit or truth? In the preview for this episode, I wondered why the show hadn’t had Gyllenhaal back to host. Is it possible he thought SNL was beneath him for a while?)
Anyway, (re-)ingratiation was priority one tonight, and to that end Gyllenhaal grabbed a microphone to sing Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” with lyrics slightly re-tailored to hosting SNL. It seemed to fire up the studio audience. It’s clear the producers and writers were besotted with Gyllenhaal too. He appeared in nearly every sketch this week, including the pre-films. The results were mostly strong. Gyllenhaal was capable and appealing in everything he was given, although there were a few sketches he should have passed on, new fun-loving eye be damned.
“Dream Home Cousins” was a solid takeoff on that cockroach of cable and streaming, the HGTV build-my-house show. Gyllenhaal and Mikey Day are the planners who were commissioned to create a dream house for a couple (James Austin Johnson and Heidi Gardner) but had to revamp it because Johnson’s ancient mother and her 27-year-old cat are moving in. In sending up the often highly manufactured conflicts that surface on these shows as a matter of course, the writing went to pleasingly weird and occasionally laugh-out-loud places. (Of course the obese cat should have a stairlift, the master bedroom be reworked for three twin beds, and windows eliminated from the bathroom because maw-maw fears peepers seeing her “make dirt.”) Everyone does strong work, and Johnson hits the right notes as the meek, basically mute husband caught in the middle.
I’m on record as approaching SNL’s game-show sketches with dread: Eight or nine times out of ten, they indicate there’s some level of writer’s block going on that week. But “Why’d You Like It?” was an effective bit of uncomfortable truth-telling on ourselves. Three contestants are asked why they liked a particular image on Instagram, and an apparently clairvoyant buzzer indicates when they’re bullshitting. All three offer copious explanations for their choices that all boil down to one thing: They want to get laid. This is funny because it’s true—nay, a dominant cultural focus. (A clever touch: Chloe Fineman’s prim contestant liked a five-year-old picture of her ex’s sister, hoping it will lead to a mention and she can realize her fantasies about raw-dogging said ex in the bathroom at Starbucks.) It’s a slight premise, but it nailed something about modern social rituals, and it’s the kind of thing the show could stand to do more.
In a very funny sendup of the increasingly surreal thing that is modern corporate human resources, Ego Nwodim, Fineman and Melissa Villaseñor are co-workers enduring an HR session with a co-worker they’re in conflict with. That co-worker: Chucky, the murderous doll from the “Child’s Play” horror series (Sarah Sherman). This workplace contretemps has an additional layer: Chucky’s offended because he overheard the trio in the restroom comparing him to Janet (Aidy Bryant), a co-worker everybody hates. But HR wants to find a resolution! It’s a solid concept executed well: Janet being everyone’s problem is a fun twist, Fineman’s character attributes Chucky’s eavesdropping to the new gender-neutral bathroom policy, and Gyllenhaal is particularly good as the unctuous HR lackey, telling Chucky that he belongs at the company because “each of us has a different story,” even as the doll repeatedly stabs his leg.
In “Spring Flowers,” Gyllenhaal, Sarah Sherman, Cecily Strong, and Chris Redd play flora in a garden who sing praises to spring before a series of increasingly undignified events unfurl. Bowen Yang shows up as a bee to hump flower Jake and work his way down the line. “I squeeze a load of goop out of my butt and people eat it. Pretty kinky, right?” says the bee. You can see exactly where this is going, and what you envision is basically what you get—a cascade of childish sex and fetish jokes. (Kyle Mooney pops up as a weed that asks if he can choke flower Sherman: “I think you might like it.”) There’s one clever touch—Chris Redd’s flower is GGG, down for anything—but even that’s run into the ground: A dog comes by to piss on the quartet, and flower Redd is into it. Overall, the effect was so dumb even E. Buzz Miller would turn away. It’d be nice to see SNL aim upward in its perspective on sex and kink instead of consistently starting from the junior-high basement.
The film appreciation show Lights Camera Achoo celebrates “sick performances in film,” a dubious premise that plays out dubiously. Playing the tubercular Doc Holliday, a sallow, sweaty Gyllenhaal farts, coughs blood into a handkerchief and sneezes gallons of stage blood and snot onto Alex Moffatt and Andrew Dismukes. Body-fluid humor works approximately 1% of the time (see Dan Aykroyd’s Julia Child bleeding out on set and Cecily Strong puking wine all over “Weekend Update”). This wasn’t one of them. (After two years of pandemic, who thought lung disease was a slam-dunk comic premise?) Worse, it ends in about the most junior-high way possible: Gyllenhaal collapses, revealing he has the herpes medication Valtrex in his pocket. So “you’ll always have something to remember me by,” he tells a nearby hooker he’s just slept with. Come on, people. The sketch closes with Cecily Strong’s host signing off, “preferring to remain anonymous.” Can’t blame her.
• This week’s MVP: Aidy Bryant made the strongest impression on a pure character basis: trend forecaster on “Weekend Update,” reviled Janet in the Chucky HR sketch, and the in-person pitchwoman for a certain “Truck Stop CD” (a sketch which would have been better without the emphasis on peeing in bottles).
• Musical guest Camila Cabello brought some day-glo dance action to her first performance and a duet with guitar-wielding Willow Smith to her second. She was capable but didn’t set the stage ablaze.
• “Weekend Update” lines of the week: Michael Che describing a photo of a beaming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as “watching the Oscars ‘In Memoriam’ package,” and the story about a rabid fox loose in D.C.—”authorities suspect the fox contracted rabies after it was bitten by Marjorie Taylor Greene.”
• The “Cabaret Night” sketch almost killed: Four somewhat sad-sack singers celebrate their underwhelming accomplishments, like using an entire tube of Chapstick before losing it. A promising concept provided some fun moments but was ultimately underwhelming. In a list sketch like this, the comic examples should be rock-solid, and here, things petered out quick (unlike, say, the wedding reception sketch on the Zoe Kravitz episode).
• However, “Cabaret Night” provided the most underrated line of the night: Gyllenhaal’s singer scans the supper-club audience before him and says, “I see a lot of lovely breads and waters in the crowd.”
• It was nice to see Punkie Johnson as the lead in a sketch, and she was very effective as a “Couples Counselor” who’s trying to work with Gyllenhaal and Villaseñor while fielding phone calls and texts from a jealous girlfriend—a solid premise that unfortunately collapsed into Gyllenhaal reading out a series of euphemisms for female genitalia (another example of the show’s junior-high approach to sex).
• For the first time in a long while, I felt like we saw a satisfyingly large percentage of the 21-person cast tonight.
• It was also nice to see Melissa Villaseñor more than usual, although her parts were a bit thankless. Seeing the super-talented impressionist cast as the minimally verbal El Chapo in the trucker sketch was actually kind of a painful reminder of how she’s been underused on the show.
• Gyllenhaal did the goodnights in a sweater evoking Donnie Darko’s bunny. Nice fanservice, JG.