Not a member? Sign up now
Saturday Night Live Movies from Best to Worst
In preparation for MacGruber, we actually watched The Ladies Man.
By Phil Nugent
With the new MacGruber, we enter our third decade of movies based on Saturday Night Live characters. Using characters meant to sustain a five-minute sketch (and coast on audience goodwill forever after) as the basis for a feature film is a tricky business, trickier than some of the people who've tried it may have realized when they signed the contract. Here are the SNL films from best to worst.
1. A MIGHTY WIND (2003)
SNL was struggling in the early '80s. For the 1984-85 season, instead of taking a risk on completely unknown new talent, producer Dick Ebersol plugged the holes in his cast with proven veterans of the comedy scene. Two of the new hires who came to be known as "Dick's all-stars" were Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer, both of whom had appeared in This Is Spinal Tap, the cult hit of the year. During their time on the show, Guest and Shearer (along with their Spinal Tap teammate Michael McKean, who would do his own stint as an SNL cast member ten years later) introduced the Folksmen, a hoary musical trio who would later anchor A Mighty Wind, Guest's parody of the folk scene. Since the Folksmen only made one appearance on SNL, a lot of people probably don't consider A Mighty Wind a "real" SNL movie, but it's also a lot funnier than most of the "real" SNL movies.
2. THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980)
John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd had already spun off their white-soul-men routine into a hit album and a touring act before John Landis (National Lampoon's Animal House) directed this $27-million movie. The original SNL players liked to go on about how they were revolutionary figures clearing away generations of show-business hacks; Blues Brothers revealed that their notion of hip wasn't significantly different from that of Frank, Dean, Sammy, and maybe even Joey Bishop. This is essentially a Rat Pack movie, albeit one for people who prefer blunts to martoonies. Overall, it's not too unpleasant, provided you don't mind spending what feels like half your life watching car crashes. The closest it comes to greatness are the sequences featuring guests musical (Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James Brown, Cab Calloway) and comedic (John Candy, Henry Gibson). Belushi and Aykroyd only really connect in those fleeting moments when they lower their sunglasses and drop their "characters."
3. WAYNE'S WORLD (1992)
Most of the SNL films would never have even occurred to anybody, if not for the blockbuster success of this massively hyped vehicle. In addition to launching Mike Myers into the stratosphere, Wayne's World also made a celebrity of Tia Carrere, allowed Rob Lowe to redefine himself as in on the joke, and created a new generation of Queen fans — mixed accomplishments all. Any movie about teens that people saw when they were teens (and subsequently watched a hundred times on VHS) will always be regarded by them as a timeless classic, so I expect to catch hell for pointing out that Wayne's World isn't very good. Most of the point of Wayne and Garth is lost by taking them out of Mom's basement, and the movie comes closer to celebrating mullethead stupidity than satirizing it. To his immense credit, Myers later scandalized the industry by refusing to do a Sprockets movie because he couldn't get the script to work. (Although that does make you wonder how it could have been worse than his script for The Love Guru.)
4. CONEHEADS (1993)
In their original TV incarnation, the Coneheads were the stuff of midnight movies: surreal, grotesque, and mean-spirited. (In the context of late-'70s SNL, they were also walking drug references. When they gorged themselves on beer and snack food, it was as if they'd gotten contact-high munchies from the viewers.) Revived more than a dozen years after their last TV appearance and reconceived for a family audience, they became cute, lovable, and implicitly anti-drug. The movie was a big commercial disappointment, and to add insult to injury, Zippy the Pinhead cartoonist Bill Griffith used his newspaper strip to accuse creator Dan Aykroyd of ripping him off. That said, Coneheads is about as good as a movie version of a played-out TV skit could be. Parts of it are funny, the parts that aren't funny aren't unduly painful, and many of the guest stars, including Dave Thomas as an alien warlord and a dashingly toupeed Jason Alexander, really strut their stuff. I actually like it more than Wayne's World, but in anticipation of negative public reaction, have chosen to rank it beneath the smash hit, which is just my way of saying, hey, I care about your feelings, please don't stuff dead cats inside my mailbox.
5. STUART SAVES HIS FAMILY (1995)
Stuart, starring Al Franken as the self-disintegrating public-access self-help guru Stuart Smalley, sat on the shelf for a while before being giving a flyspeck of a theatrical release. It did badly enough to send Franken himself into a reported shame spiral, but it has its defenders. With the vulnerable Stuart trying to reconnect with his awful family at the same time he's coping with the cancellation of his TV show, it's as genuinely dark as SNL movies get. There are funny moments throughout, but it has trouble achieving sustained liftoff, maybe because it's hard to make a movie seem fully alive when its hero keeps taking to his bed for six days at a stretch.
6. THE LADIES MAN (2000)
Tim Meadows stood out among SNL cast members of the '90s by being generally pretty easy to take. If anything, his light touch may have held him back in a field that rewards obnoxious overkill. Where someone like Adam Sandler threw anything at the wall to see if it would stick (Opera Man, Cajun Man, Unfunny Horrible Man Whom Somebody Should Have Taken A Hammer To Before He Got Rich Enough To Hire Bodyguards), Meadows was slow to acquire a recurring character. He eventually arrived at Leon Phelps, an ingenuously gauche love expert with a retro-'70s style and — a recurring curse in these movies — a funny voice that's amusing for five minutes at a time but can really get on your nerves over the course of a feature film. Meadows's likability is a major asset here, but the film itself is dispiritingly half-assed, partly because no one figured out how "real" people should react to this sexed-up goofball; anyone who responds favorably to his come-ons seems deranged, but if nobody responds to them, there's no movie. (His most satisfying run-in is with Julianne Moore, unrecognizable in full clown makeup.)