Taran Killam and the ‘Saturday Night Live’ Farewell Film Tryout

 

Saturday Night Live returns for its new season this Saturday, October 1st, after a month or two of what seemed like behind-the-scenes turbulence. Host Margot Robbie and musical guest the Weeknd were only announced last week, an unusually short lead time. This followed some writing-room shake-ups (new head writers, new hires, uncertainty about which staffers from last season would be back), the promotion of one longtime writer to on-camera duties and the hiring of two new cast members (including the requisite controversy about one of said new hire's Twitter account), and, most visibly, the firing of six-season veterans Taran Killam and Jay Pharoah. Killam and Pharoah each had one year left on their initial seven-year contracts, had been plenty visible on the show, and seemed as surprised by the news as anyone else; they did not participate in the recent tradition of an unofficial farewell episode back in May.

Killam's firing leaves him in the unexpected company of cast members like Norm MacDonald and Will Forte — not because they were fired (MacDonald was fired from Update and left the show himself; Forte, a surprising Lorne Michaels favorite, seems to have made the call to leave entirely on his own), but because all three cast members have starred in movies they co-wrote just as their run on the show was coming to an end. MacDonald's was Dirty Work, back in 1998. Forte's was the formally SNL-based MacGruber, back in 2010.

Even if you're a fan of those two particular box office flops, though, you may not have heard of Killam's equivalent, despite the fact that Brother Nature, the first movie to star Taran Killam from a screenplay co-written by Taran Killam, came out in movie theaters just a few weeks ago, on Friday, September 9th. I know this, because I went to go see it in a movie theater, on Thursday, September 15th, at 10:20PM, shortly before it vanished from Manhattan theaters entirely.

I saw Brother Nature not because I'm a particular fan of Killam's (I'm not), nor because I didn't have better ways to spend my time (I have a family), but because I couldn't resist the opportunity to be able to say I saw it during its theatrical run, and also because I didn't know it was also available on iTunes. I'm a longtime SNL fan and an even longer-time compulsive moviegoer, and the way those two areas intersect has long been a point of fascination for me. Even more irresistible: Brother Nature is no mere Taran Killam vanity project. It was written by Killam and Mikey Day, the aforementioned SNL writer making the transition to the cast this year; it was produced by Lorne Michaels; it co-stars current longtime SNL cast members Bobby Moynihan and Kenan Thompson, and it has bit roles for current MVP Aidy Bryant, as well as past SNL players and writers Tim Robinson and Mike O'Brien, who both followed Day's lead in going back and forth between on-camera and off-camera jobs; and it was directed by Osmany Rodriguez and Matt Villines, who made a number of great SNL pre-tape bits, most notably the music videos "Twin Bed" and "Back Home Ballers."

Matt & Oz, as they were known professionally, tip the timing of Brother Nature's release from unfortunate to borderline tragic. Matt Villines died of cancer this past July, at the age of 39, which means Brother Nature is a comedy co-directed by a talented man who died way too young, starring a man recently fired from his job by the same guy who produced said comedy. Though Killam promoted the project with pride on Twitter, it would be understandable if many involved with the project were not feeling especially compelled to make its presence known.

It is also, to put it charitably, not the best movie. It's far from the worst movie starring mostly SNL cast members; it's probably not even in the bottom forty percent. It even contains a handful of jokes and moments that I will likely remember and excitedly retell to people for a long time, including a scene featuring the '90s alt-rock band Spin Doctors. But I will not go so far as to tell any of those people to see the movie for themselves.

Killam plays a congressional aide who is about to announce his own political ambitions, and he goes on a family vacation with his longtime girlfriend, played by Gillian Jacobs. Jacobs has a sister who has a longtime boyfriend, played by Bobby Moynihan in big crazy overbearing puppy-dog mode. (Why Moynihan's character wasn't simply made the brother of Jacobs is not entirely clear, beyond some gene-pool considerations that movies like this are usually happy to ignore.) Killam finds himself continually vexed by this man-child while they spend time together in the woods, fearing that he'll ruin his career. Basically, it's Black Sheep meets Tommy Boy, which sounds redundant but is also an accurate way of describing its laugh count: way fewer than Tommy Boy, way more than Black Sheep.

Moynihan has a different sort of energy than Chis Farley, and he's sometimes quite funny in Brother Nature, although the screenplay sometimes shackles him by giving him so many intentionally unfunny, overfamiliar jokes that are supposed to show what a goof his character is. (Moynihan played a similarly "on" character in Sisters last year, but in a supporting capacity it worked a lot better.) For better and worse, Killam is no David Spade, which means he never has Spade's air of low-effort sleaze — but he plays up his character's stiffness to such a degree that he can be similarly unlikable. If Killam had been on SNL in the '90s, during boom times for mid-to-low-budget comedies awarded to anyone with a few hit sketches, this is the kind of movie a studio exec might have convinced him to take — which makes it all the weirder that he wrote the part himself.

In fact, the movie is most fascinating for the way it stacks up to the likes of Dirty Work and MacGruber (which recently made internet-news for Forte and company beginning work on a sequel script, despite a pitiful $10 million domestic haul). Both of those movies have won a cult following in the years since their box-office flops, in part, I think, for the way they encapsulate so much about their makers: MacDonald's deadpan, wiseass-bro fakeness, which seemed to be satirizing Adam Sandler movies before they were codified (or terrible) enough to be satirize, and Forte's utter derangement within the confines of what's supposed to be American masculinity.

Brother Nature, by contrast, doesn't have strong indicators of what Killam is all about. It certainly has a lot of what made him both workable and sometimes irritating on SNL in that he's both committed and trying too hard all at once, in service of a thinly conceived character where the seams of his performing are all too visible. When he's not overacting, Killam so ably blends into his ensemble that he still doesn't seem to be playing a person. He's somehow both a straight man and a caricature. This is a go-alonger of a comedy, with no real point of view beyond its occasional amusing absurdities. It's semi-ironic about its own hackiness, but that doesn't count as a statement on its own.

Brother Nature, MacGruber, and Dirty Work all feel like parting gifts, even though none of them were greenlit when the SNLers involved knew for sure they'd be off the show by the time of release. They're all the products of the same line of credit, automatically afforded to anyone who starred on SNL for a substantial length of time (which is to say, what the bank of comedy would deny Jeff Richards). The existence of hit movies starring Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler, and Will Ferrell all but guarantees that this practice will continue in the future: the SNL-farewell motion-picture try-out. These movies are rarely successful, because most of the best SNL movie careers either start while the performer is still on the show, or start with smaller roles and build up from there, or both. But they're almost all interesting, whether it's due to high quality or utter misguidedness.

Billy Madison is an accidental one of these, debuting in theaters a few months before he was cut loose from the cast in a major house-cleaning. The hilarious Lonely Island movies Hot Rod and Popstar both pretty much qualify, too; they're both pure expressions of different stuff that Andy Samberg and his buddies did on the show, though neither of them happened to be immediately preceded by their exit (Hot Rod was much earlier; this summer's Popstar proved that nine years of accumulated Hot Rod cultists still can't open a new movie, or else all of those people would rather just watch the movie for free in a couple of years and express disbelief that it wasn't a bigger hit). The ur-text of these movies may be the somewhat less cultishly adored Nothing But Trouble, starring, co-written, and directed by Dan Aykroyd. It came a solid decade after Aykroyd left the show, but it seems to represent the star cashing in any and all of his Hollywood cred on a dream project, and is a grimly fascinating document for that precise reason.

Brother Nature cannot lay claim to any such psychological relevance, though on the other hand, it's much less punishing to watch than Nothing But Trouble. Though it clearly belongs on any list of post-SNL bombs, it's mainly another document of a Saturday Night Live sensibility marooned in the wild, without the weight of an institution behind it. As such, it's also a reminder that being funny on that show, even with a similar support system and no network interference, will not necessarily translate into a solid comedy, especially without the desperately strange expressiveness of a MacGruber. Killam's bid for Ferrell, Sandler, or even Forte status becomes just another Dana Carvey, partying on after graduation but before he finds a real job. But that sometimes embarrassing spectacle won't stop me from going to see the Kyle Mooney movie during whatever ultra-brief theatrical window it's afforded.