Life of the Party (2018)

In official terms, there hasn’t been an SNL Movie since MacGruber (perhaps the artistic height of the medium) tragically died in the theaters in 2010. Long gone are the days where recurring, one-note Saturday Night Live characters like Stuart Smalley & Mary Katherine Gallagher were allowed to carry a feature-length comedy on their own. The modern SNL movie is a low-key affair, manifesting in pictures like Popstar, Sisters, and Ghostbusters (2016), where the cast is stacked with chummy SNL vets, but the premise was born outside the show. Melissa McCarthy movies are an even more rarified breed within that modern tradition, as McCarthy herself was never quite an official member of the Saturday Night Live cast. She may have hosted & cameoed so many times on the show that she seems like a natural extension of the staff and she may have started her comedy career in The Groundlings with professional besties Kristen Wiig & Maya Rudolph, but McCarthy is an SNL guest player at best (like Steve Martin in the 1970s). What’s curious about that is the way her own comedy features (especially the ones she’s collaborated on with husband/fellow Groundlings-vet Ben Falcone) feel like the lowkey, unofficial SNL comedies that most closely recall the brand’s 1990s “Every recurring character gets a movie!” heyday. Reinforced by the presence of SNL vets Chris Parnell, Maya Rudolph, and (current cast member) Heidi Gardner, the latest McCarthy-Falcone joint feels exactly like the 1990s model for the SNL Movie, only with the absurdity turned slightly down to make room for saccharine sentimentality (something McCarthy can’t help but bring to the screen between her violent bursts of slapstick). That comedic aesthetic is a kind of risk, as the classic SNL Movie is only beloved by a hopelessly dorky few, but I personally find it to be an endearing comfort, a return to the sweetly dumb movies I was raised on out of brand loyalty to SNL as an institution.

Playing a Midwestern 90s Mom character I wouldn’t be surprised to learn she’s been whipping out since The Groundlings, McCarthy stars as a middle-aged divorcee who enrolls back in college to finish a degree she abandoned for the sake of her family. As she crashes the frat & sorority party scene also inhabited by her college-senior daughter, the movie doesn’t shy away from its unavoidable similarities to the Roger Dangerfield classic Back to School. The relentless barrage of party sequences & studying montages almost make Life of the Party feel like another McCarthy-helmed, gender-flipped remake. That bawdy Dangerfield irreverence & fish-out-of-water social humor is also contrasted against a striking amount of sentimentality, however, as the movie focuses more on McCarthy’s inner journey as a woman who’s tired of being an emotional doormat than it does on her daughter’s initial horror at her presence (not to mention her sex drive). For the most part, she fits right in with the younger students, even being inducted into their sorority house as an honorary sister and finding herself a young boy-toy to wear out in the bedroom. Life of the Party is overlong, burdened by an inspo-pop soundtrack, and generally suffers from an improvisational looseness that should have spent a little more time simmering in the editing room, but I think most audiences’ biggest hurdle will be reconciling that overly earnest tone with expectations of gag-a-minute slapstick. This is a much more labored, sentimental piece than either Tammy or The Boss, the previous two McCarthy-Falcone collabs, but its sweetness isn’t necessarily a mood-killer if you’re willing to accept it as an essential part of the movie’s fabric. I still think the hedonistic, low-class excess of Tammy is the couple’s greatest collaboration to date, but Life of the Party’s warm blanket of Midwestern Mom energy has a charm of its own.

If you can withstand the crushing weight of its Hallmark sentimentality, Life of the Party also offers the simple joy of women being afforded space to be funny. In addition to the always-reliable McCarthy & Maya Rudolph, who bring a middle-aged severity to out-of-nowhere slapstick gags of explosions & crotch-shots, the movie also allows plenty of screentime for promising lesser-knowns. Heidi Gardner recalls the same nu-metal & mall goth battiness she often brings to her SNL sketches as McCarthy’s shut-in roommate. Gillian Jacobs (who should be starring in her own wide-release features by now) often runs away with the movie as coma survivor & sorority sister who drifts through life in an anarchic haze. There are many tonally sloppy reaction shots in Life of the Party that director Falcone should have paid much more attention to in the editing room, but Jacobs manages to turn her own into an art form, acting as an element of dazed chaos even when idling in the background. Her Love costar Jessie Ennis also shows promise as a relative newcomer, operating with a wide-eyed derangement as a sorority sister who wants to fit in at any cost. The way these women rally around McCarthy’s new-lease-on-life mom is so sweet it borders on surreality, affording Life of the Party a sustained, low-key joy even when specific jokes don’t land or a labored party sequence drags on into a tequila-drenched eternity. The joys of Life of the Party’s slapstick & absurdism require a patience with its saccharine earnestness & editing room looseness, especially in a year where we’ve seen that sweet/raunchy balance achieved so expertly in Blockers. I’m more than willing to put in the effort for this endearing of talent (especially from too-rarely-seen performers like Gardner & Jacobs), something I’m long familiar with as someone who was comedically raised on the SNL Movie in its heyday. I haven’t quite fallen for a McCarthy-Falcone joint with full enthusiasm since Tammy, but as long as they keep making them I’ll likely keep enjoying them. I’ve got to get my SNL Movie fix somewhere and I just don’t see a Laura Parsons or Chris Kirkpatrick movie arriving anytime soon, no matter how badly I want them.

-Brandon Ledet

Brigsby Bear (2017)

There was a time before DVRs, streaming, and even VCRs when watching television was a more communal activity. The idea of a “water cooler show” that everyone discusses in the days after it airs is still alive & well, but in the early days of broadcast viewing there was a more distinct cultural phenomenon of everyone watching the same show at once. When I was a kid my two religious appointment-viewing shows were The Simpsons & Saturday Night Live, two cultural behemoths that shaped my comedic brain while simultaneously doing the same for snarky kids & juvenile adults everywhere who I virtually shared a television set with, but never met. Brigsby Bear taps into that exact communal phenomenon and turns it into a horror show. What if there weren’t millions of other people watching The Simpsons at the exact same time as me? What if, in fact, I was the entirety of the show’s intended audience? What if instead of it being a show meant to entertain a massive amount of people it was instead produced as propaganda to warp my (and only my) developing mind? In Brigsby Bear, the answers to these questions are darkly funny & informed by awkward, whimsical quirk, but also lead to some fairly earnest, heartbreaking discoveries about abuse, therapy, community, and art.

SNL’s Kyle Mooney stars as the victim of such an elaborate betrayal, a thirty-something man-child who was raised as the sole superfan of the fictional television show The Brigsby Bear Adventures. The show, which chronicles the space-traveling adventures of its titular bear, was meant to raise him from when he was a small child until his current state as an emotionally stunted adult. As a result, it has the appearance of Teletubbies or Barney style kids’ television with the complex lore of a sci-fi series that has lasted hundreds of episodes over the course of decades. Along with enforcing propaganda about “only trusting your family unit” and how “curiosity is an unnatural emotion,” the show also teaches him increasingly complex math problems & provides a window of mental escape within his horrifically insular surroundings. Beginning where Room winds up in its third act, Mooney’s over-sheltered protagonist ends his lifelong confinement to a small space where television is his only contact with the outside world to explore a new world where “everything is really very big.” The problem is that in order to be integrated into a larger, more conventional society, he must leave behind his memorabilia altar to the almighty Brigsby and adjust to a new life where a show that only he’s ever seen is no longer being produced on a weekly basis; he’ll never know how The Brigsby Bear Adventures ends. His only choice, then, is to complete Brigsby’s character arc himself in a final, self-produced movie that will satisfactorily conclude the only story he (and only he) has ever cared about once & for all.

If Brigsby Bear were made in the snarkier days of the Gen-X 90s, it would be unbearably sarcastic & mean. Although it’s a darkly funny film that builds its narrative around a fictional television show that stars an animatronic bear & adheres to an Everything Is Terrible VHS aesthetic, it’s instead remarkably earnest, with genuine emotional stakes. Along with Mooney (who co-wrote the screenplay), Brigsby Bear features several sketch comedy performers (Matt Walsh, Andy Samberg, Beck Bennett) who somehow sidestep snark to hold their own dramatically with more traditionally earnest players like Greg Kinnear, Claire Danes, and Mark Hammill. Only Tim Heidecker is allowed to fully ham it up in his single scene cameo as an objectively shitty action star. Everyone else plays the material straight, allowing the absurdity of the scenario to speak for itself. Mooney anchors the film by adjusting the socially awkward, overgrown teens he usually plays in sketches to convey a hurt, scared man-child who is unsure how to adjust to the expanse of the modern world, so he buries himself in his work, recalling outsider art projects like Marwencol or Henry Darger’s Realms of the Unreal. By crudely learning the art of filmmaking so he can complete the fictional saga of a space alien bear wizard, he finds his own place in society, making friends & learning to cope with an unbelievably tough adjustment along the way. It’s just as touching as it is strange.

I never thought I’d see the best parts of Room & Gentlemen Broncos synthesized into a single picture, but what’s even more impressive is that Brigsby Bear manages to be both more emotionally devastating & substantially amusing than either individual work. 2017 was the year Kyle Mooney made me cry in a comedy about an animatronic bear, a time I never knew to expect. My only real complaint is in the frustration of knowing that I can’t be locked in a room to watch a few hundred episodes of The Brigsby Bear Adventures myself. Regardless of how it was created to manipulate a single viewer/victim, its existence could only do the world good. Like an inverse of the haunted VHS tapes of The Ring, everyone who watches The Brigsby Bear Adventures is emotionally brought to life and I sorely wish I could count myself among them.

-Brandon Ledet

Ghostbusters (2016), Popstar (2016) and the Outsourcing of the Modern SNL Movie


People tend to get overly nostalgic about Saturday Night Live, typically looking back to the supposed “golden years” of the show (an era that can shift around by decades depending on who you’re asking) in order to knock its most current, supposedly subpar season, whichever year they’re complaining. The truth is that the show might struggle a little here or there, but has overall been consistent in its quality in a way the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia can significantly alter. SNL generally produces a few great sketches on a weekly basis in one of comedy’s most demanding writing rooms (James Franco’s Saturday Night documentary is a good glimpse of that punishing rhythm if you’re interested). These sketches often define their current era’s height of comedic performance & off-the-cuff writing, but just as often appear among enough failure & filler to greatly soften their in-the-moment impact. Looking back at past seasons of the show allow you to remember the great work & forget the filler, constructing a false reality where the show was ever perfect or firing on all cylinders (and I’m saying this about a series I love dearly & never miss). One of the things that helps foster this skewed perception is many of the performers’ post-show fame. It’s easy to look back & think SNL was so much better when Will Ferrell or Bill Murray were on instead of these no-name nobodies they’re currently working with, but the show is where those comedians cut their teeth & made a name for themselves in the first place. The truth is that they suffered just as much public scrutiny & just as many comedic missteps in their own day, but came out the other end of the show’s star-making machine all the better for it.

One of the ways the SNL star-maker machine used to work was in movie production. The franchise’s first film, The Blues Brothers, was an outrageous hit that helped make its stars Dan Aykroyd & John Belushi insanely popular in the early 1980s. The brand’s follow-up, Wayne’s World, had the same effect on the careers of Dan Carvey & Mike Myers and has gradually become a near-universally well-regarded comedy despite its inherent stoner-minded silliness. Things got much stranger in the mid to late 90s. When SNL movies like Coneheads & It’s Pat critically & financially sank the franchise’s box office reputation, the SNL movie seemed to shift focus from defining pop culture to developing the strengths of its performers. The late 90s run of A Night at the Roxbury, Superstar, and The Ladies Man in particular play like movie star training wheels for the show’s performers (not unlike WWE productions like 12 Rounds & See No Evil). They’re low-stakes pictures aimed to help a future generation of comedic giants define their on-screen presence in a halfway point between a comedy sketch & a feature length character study. It’s easy to see, for instance, the beginnings of Will Ferrell’s future schtick, later defined in films like Step Brothers & Talladega Nights, beginning to form in his early roles as a club-hopping airhead in Roxbury or Jesus Christ himself in Superstar. The latest movie in SNL’s official sketch-to-silver-screen catalog (and my personal favorite to date), 2010’s MacGruber, seemed to be a similar incubator for comedic madman Will Forte, whose onscreen work gets weirder & more prominent every passing year.

It’s been six years since MacGruber and it’s unlikely that there are many sketch-to-film characters currently in development (not that I would necessarily be opposed to a Stefon or Olya Povlatsky movie), but that doesn’t mean the SNL movie is currently dead as a format. This hasn’t been the longest gap between SNL pictures by any stretch; there was a full decade separating both The Blues Brothers & Wayne’s World and The Ladies Man & MacGruber. It has been interesting, though, that in this most recent time span there’s been plenty of comedies I’d readily classify as “unofficial” SNL movies. Official SNL productions are traditionally helmed by the showrunner Lorne Michaels & have some sort of character connection to a recurring sketch from the show. Unofficial SNL movies, to me, exist solely in the casting. As a life-long fan of the show, I get incongruously excited when a comedy features a long list of SNL players, especially when I wasn’t expecting their participation. It happened, for example, in recent works like Inside Out, Skeleton Twins, and Zoolander 2 (which was a great showcase for Kyle Mooney in particular). Adam Sandler, for instance, has built a career around including as many of his SNL collaborators as possible in his own productions, which admittedly often disappoint in quality & basic human decency. Sometimes even his unofficial SNL movies can win me over, though. I doubt I’d have enjoyed an Adam Sandler children’s cartoon, horror comedy or otherwise, without a long list of SNL collaborators tagging along, but I gotta admit this long list of Not Ready for Prime Time Players brought too much joy to my heart for me to sour on Sandler’s Hotel Transylvania 2: Sandler, Andy Samberg, Molly Shannon, David Spade, Dana Carvey, Chris Kattan, Jon Lovitz, Robert Smigel, Chris Parnell, and oft-recurring host Steve Buscemi as a CGI werewolf. Similarly, the Tina Fey/Amy Poehler comedy Sisters got me stoked last Christmas with this delicious SNL lineup: Fey, Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Bobby Moynihan, Rachel Dratch, Kate McKinnon, and Chris Parnell. Moynihan in particular was allowed to steal the show in his role as the world’s worst amateur comedian and it got me excited about where his big screen career will eventually go, which is exactly what an SNL movie should be doing, undercover or not. That brings me to this summer’s undercover SNL movies: Popstar & Ghostbusters.

On its own, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is enough to make me feel as if the modern SNL movie is being officially outsourced to powers outside Lorne Michaels’s reach. Andy Samberg’s comedy troupe The Lonely Island are lifelong friends with roots much deeper than Samberg’s 2000s stint on the sketch comedy show. However, their “Digital Shorts” music parody bits are what made the troupe famous and now they have an entire This is Spinal Tap-style comedy built around the gimmick in Popstar. The Lonely Island’s first feature film, Hot Rod, included enough SNL collaborators to qualify as an undercover SNL movie, but that movie’s followup, Popstar, is even more ambitious in its inclusion of past personalities form the series: Samberg, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph, Jimmy Fallon, Steve Higgins, Will Forte, Sarah Silverman, and a fully-utilized Tim Meadows, which is particularly a rare treat. Not only has the Saturday Night Live roll call gotten even longer, but the film itself is an extension of a gimmick that was developed on the television series into a feature length narrative. The world was introduced to these pop star clowns on Saturday Night Live in songs like “I’m on a Boat” & “Jack Sparrow” and now their parody of pop music hedonism is on display in movie theaters without the SNL or Lorne Michaels brands stamped on it in any official way.

The modern, undercover SNL movie formula isn’t merely content with hjacking past sketches from the show, either. It’s now also infiltrating past works with only a small connection to the series. Early SNL staples Dan Aykroyd & Bill Murray received top billing in the 1984 horror comedy Ghostbusters, but they were the only two cast members involved with the movie, which had about as much to do with SNL as the Chris Farley, David Spade buddy comedies of the mid-90s, maybe even less. Compare that to the undercover SNL movie ensemble Paul Feig & casting director Allison Jones have delivered in the recent Ghostbusters remake. When they just comprised half of the main cast in the original property, all four of the Ghostbusters are SNL players in the 2016 version: Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, and honorary cast member (through regular, fully-committed hosting gigs) Melissa McCarthy. They’re also backed up by the bit role roster of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Steve Higgins, and Cecily Strong. More convincing yet, the movie is proving to be something of a star-maker for the consistently funny McKinnon, who’s been up there with Strong, Bryant, Moynihan, and Taran Killiam as one of the most essential backbone pieces of the show’s current cast. If Ghostbusters did nothing more than promote & develop Kate McKinnon’s screen presence, it would already have done its job, as that’s the best post-Coneheads titles like Superstar & Roxbury ever hoped for.

Ghostbusters does accomplish more than that, though. It’s an all-around hilarious, well-made popcorn flick that’s actually visually striking in its play with aspect ratios in its large format release (ghosts, lasers, lighting, and such spill over the letterbox border to enhance the film’s 3D effects), a kind of ambition I don’t normally anticipate from a summertime comedy, much less a reboot. Popstar is equally successful in its humor & ambition, bringing the Walk Hard brand of pop music cinema parody into the 2010s by tackling the Justin Bieber & One Direction style of “concert documentaries” that have been released since that modern John C. Reilly classic (which featured a few SNL contributors of its own). Two of the best summertime comedies of 2016 boast strong SNL roots, but don’t openly display the series’s brand. Meanwhile, Lorne Michaels supports smaller projects from his sketch comedy children, like the Hader-Armisen series Documentary Now or Maya Rudolph’s various attempts to launch a successful variety show of her own. In the six years since MacGruber left the theaters Michaels has shown little interest in pushing for a project like Riblet: The Movie or One-Dimensional Female Character from a Male-Driven Comedy: The Male-Driven Comedy. I would totally be down for either of those features, being a huge sucker for the brand (a Tonkerbell movie could work too while we’re at it), but I’m proud to see undercover SNL movies like Popstar & Ghostbusters fill that void in the long-running sketch series’s current theatrical absence. I doubt we’ve seen the end of the official SNL sketch-to-big-screen movie, but it’s been great to see the younger cast find their own collaborative space at the movies in the meantime. Especially Kate McKinnon. Everyone throw all of your money directly at Kate McKinnon. Now.

-Brandon Ledet

Saturday Night (2010)


three star

One of my all-time favorite pop culture documents is Live From New York, the oral history of Saturday Night Live. It’s an impressively thorough work that traces the grueling writer’s room structure of the sketch comedy institution back to the coked-out shenanigans of the 1970s. The absurdly late hours & rapid-fire turnaround that give the show’s more gloriously inane moments their loopy, “Why would someone even write that?” absurdity seem like a very peculiar business practice, but make total sense when considered in the context of their 1970s origins. Over the three decades of SNL covered in the book, not much changes institutionally. The show is like a river that only gradually shifts its course as a constant supply of fresh faces flow through it.

In case you are interested in how SNL functions, but can’t be bothered with the ~700 page task of Live From New York, James Franco has your back. His 2010 documentary Saturday Night was seven years behind the definitive oral history, but is much more easily digestible and covers much of the same territory. The premise is simple: Franco films the one-week cycle of the production a single SNL episode. On the starting Monday, the writers & cast cram into Lorne Michaels’ office to pitch seeds of ideas for sketches that could possibly be developed that week. As the days roll on the crew develops around 50 sketches that get torn down & rebuilt through a series of table readings, producers’ meetings and live rehearsals. They frantically grasp at sketch comedy straws & avoid sleep like the plague with only the faint promise that something they develop makes the live broadcast. After a single day of rest it’s Monday again and they’re pitching sketch ideas for the next SNL host. It’s a punishing/fascinating creative process that may be a hangover of the 70s party scene when rampant drug use could get you through the ordeal, but it’s one that pays off with some of the more bizarre realized ideas on broadcast television for four decades running.

Saturday Night starts with its most amusing moments. It’s genuinely delightful to watch the wheels turn in writers’ & performers’ heads when they’re excited about getting to work on an infant sketch idea. The fun fades a bit as the work gets more difficult, the frustration involved with the detailed logistics of developing a sketch on full display for the camera. Franco’s choice to film a week John Malkovich hosted pays dividends, as his subject is an endlessly fascinating personality even when just standing around idling as the SNL machine swirls around him. Cast members like Bill Hader & Will Forte also carry the film a long way, especially early in the creative process when they’re frantically riffing or selecting fart noises from a sound board. There are a few moments when Franco’s personality becomes intrusive, like a frustratingly useless scene involving Hader’s dressing room mirror & the intentionally conspicuous absence of Amy Poehler, but for the most part he pulls the film off with a calm, low-key tone that benefits the laborious process he documents. Saturday Night is a great companion piece to the more definitive Live From New York book. There are less mind-blowing anecdotes & juicy gossip than in the whopping oral history, but the film brings the day-to-day logistics of the pop culture institution’s unfathomable workload into vivid focus.

Saturday Night is currently streaming on Hulu.

-Brandon Ledet