During its 40 years on the air, American comedy institution “Saturday Night Live” has spawned 11 feature films, kicking off with 1980’s “The Blues Brothers” and recently wrapping things up with 2010’s “MacGruber.” Most of the beloved sketch comedy series’ theatrical output hasn’t performed well at the box office, however, and only two of those 11 films have ever cracked even the $50 million mark in domestic returns (“The Blues Brothers” and the first “Wayne’s World”; even “Wayne’s World 2” couldn’t push past $50 million). “It’s Pat” was a notorious bomb — not even a box office under-performer, but a true disaster — that made just $60,000 when it hit limited release for just a single week in 1994.
“SNL” movies, by and large, just don’t work, and whatever affection television viewers have for popular sketches on the small screen simply doesn’t translate to big box office bucks. That’s a shame, of course, because “Saturday Night Live” regularly churns out scads of talent, from the on-screen faces that fans come to know and love, to the writers working behind the scenes (often, that divide is bridged, as every on-screen star of the show is also expected to write, and occasionally writers also turn into sketch stars, as recently happened with Leslie Jones). Some of our biggest and brightest comedy stars came from “SNL,” from Will Ferrell to Tina Fey, Amy Poehler to Jason Sudeikis. They’re bankable now, but if they had tried to turn their best sketches into feature films, well, we’ll never know, but the odds (and the numbers) certainly would have been against them.
At the very least, they may have gone the way of some of the best “SNL” features to date: By becoming cult hits, not mainstream ones. Box office numbers don’t tell the whole story — they never have — and although “SNL” features have rarely set the multiplex on fire, there are gems to be found, especially with the Will Forte-starring “MacGruber,” which has gained life as a home-video offering in the five years since it was released. But there’s another way to make an “SNL” movie that ensnares both fans of the show and a new audience. Turns out, the key to making an “SNL” movie is to, well, not make an “SNL” movie, eschewing the impulse to turn a hit sketch into a full-blown feature and instead building something new with “SNL” talent.
Films like “Mean Girls,” “Hot Rod” and “Baby Mama” have done just that, gathering “SNL” talent together to make something new, but still boasting lots of familiar faces. They’re not “SNL” movies, but they sort of are, they just benefit from fresh stories that don’t lean on watching a weekly show to understand or appreciate. It’s no surprise then that those films are the real bonafide hits to emerge from the “SNL” talent pool, proof that it is possible to take short-form comedy in a new direction, given the right participants and a willingness to start from scratch.
That’s likely what “SNL” head writer Colin Jost is aiming for with his “Staten Island Summer,” a film stacked with “SNL” stars (from Kate McKinnon to Cecily Strong, Bobby Moynihan to Mike O’Brien, and some Will Forte for good measure) and even directed by Rhys Thomas, a long-time “SNL” producer and director. Despite the film’s pedigree, it doesn’t pull from any existing sketches, a fun and frisky comedy that firmly embraces the “whoa, what a wild summer” concept that has been mined for plenty of laughs before.
The film stars Graham Phillips as recent high school grad Danny, Harvard-bound and on the tail end of one last crazy summer. Danny and his motley crew of friends (including Zack Pearlman, John DeLuca, Moynihan and Strong) pass the time and make some bucks lifeguarding at the Great Kills Swim Club, a local pool mostly trafficked by well-mannered regulars and longtime pals. The one black mark against GKSC, however, is its crazy manager, Chuck Casino (O’Brien), who likes nothing more than busting the chops of his loyal workers. An outsider and a wacko — O’Brien spends the entire film in Speedos, playing up his particular brand of off-kilter comedy to the max — Chuck flips out when he discovers that Danny and company are planning a big end-of-summer bash that he’s decidedly not invited to attend. Hijinks, of course, ensue, as the lifeguards attempt to put on their big party and not lose their jobs in the process.
The premise isn’t particularly inventive or original, but Thomas, Jost and their cast keep the laughs consistent and flowing. Although the film is ostensibly focused on Danny and his quest to end the summer in style (mainly by not spending the last weekend before he heads off to school going to Disney World with his parents, as is their annual tradition), “Staten Island Summer” makes room for its ensemble to shine. Phillips anchors the film as a relative straight man, with Pearlman reveling in sequences that range from an ill-conceived drug purchase to a recurring series of interactions with an oddly different set of twins. A longer, heist-inspired bit sees the entire cast of lifeguards banding together to steal Chuck’s keys in order to access the pool for their party, a hilarious sequence that allows each performer to play up their strengths. Brief visits with Danny’s parents — played by Kate Walsh and Jim Gaffigan — amiably toe the line between bizarre and relatable (Walsh’s tear about the dangers of motorcycles smacks of “oh, mom, jeez” humor, but Jost pushes it to gut-busting limits). Mainly, it’s just nice to watch all these funny people spend time together, getting up to goofs and having fun while hanging out.
At 108 minutes, “Staten Island Summer” does wear thin around its middle, and it suffers from a conclusion that just never seems to know when to wind down for good, but it’s an amusing feature that just might be destined for the kind of cult affection heaped on its ilk. It may also inspire fresh interest in Jost, whose recent promotion to “Weekend Update” co-anchor has been met with derision from some fans and critics (as ever, it’s important to remember that Jost isn’t some flash in the pan, despite his new-ness to the screen, he’s been a writer on the series since 2007).
“Staten Island Summer” won’t break any records or make a big box office splash, but it will tickle some big laughs out of its viewership, “SNL” faithful or not.
“Staten Island Summer” will be released in NY, LA and Chicago this Friday. The film is already available via iTunes and other digital platforms.