Russell Crowe is starring in an upcoming movie with Ryan Gosling (The Nice Guys, opening May 20) and manages to out-guest host his co-star with a pretty solid Saturday Night Live.
Gosling hosted a mostly forgettable episode last December, never quite finding his groove with live television sketch comedy. Crowe, on the other hand, shines on the 8-H stage. Which is strange, as he is a confirmed dramatic actor, though not entirely surprising. Great screen actors often make the best SNL hosts. They know how to bring characters to life, how to turn dialogue on the page into believable conversation on screen. And ultimately, this serves the Saturday Night Live writing staff well.
The episode opened with yet another great message from Hillary Clinton (Kate McKinnon), struggling to explain away the fact Bernie Sanders has won seven primaries in the past couple of weeks. McKinnon’s Hillary gingerly and begrudgingly allows herself to have “real New York” experiences like a street hot dog and a Yankees baseball cap—if only for a moment. The sketch reminds us that the ticket to political insider power seems to be giving up one’s membership in common experience, a point driven home so well by the real Hillary’s subway gaffe earlier this week—though Kate’s version of the incident does take it to its most absurd lengths.
Al Sharpton in the form of Kenan Thompson goes head to head with the real, live Al Sharpton in the second live sketch of the episode in “Politics Nation.” Thompson’s Sharpton has a silly edge, brazenly mispronouncing words while setting up several zingers regarding the African-American perspective on the election. What about all these voter ID laws? No one has ever contacted Rev. Sharpton in a panic: “Help me, Reverend Sharpton! My son is out there on the streets committing voter fraud!” Ditto the Black Voter Approval Rating quotient, ranging from a high of 22 for President Obama to Trump’s bottom-basement rating of -1,048 (“but that could still go down!”). Of course, Senator Sanders has his own problems with minority voters: “Never has a black person said, ‘I’ve got time off this weekend. Anybody want to go to Vermont?’”
Russell Crowe works hard and delivers well in his sketches, disproving the impression we initially get from a rather flat opening monologue which attempts to find the humor in his blockbuster dramatic films. Crowe is genuinely funny, offering us characters with more depth than the simplistic punch lines would have implied. His very first piece, where he plays a hologram in the Henry VIII: The Experience exhibit, reminds us that we probably wouldn’t enjoy meeting most historic figures. Henry VIII fascinates us because we don’t have to put up with his lechery in real life.
Crowe brings his A-game to “Match Finders,” a dating game show parody. Cecily Strong must choose from three flirty bachelors to find her match, selecting from Beck Bennett, Pete Davidson and Russell Crowe—playing a model, a Best Buy employee, and a German professor who “knows his way around a woman’s body.”
A few other pieces deserve attention: A filmed story about two earnest and overjoyed “Pogie Pepperoni” employees, played by Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett, is fantastic, while Mike O’Brien’s Oprah biopic trailer is…baffling. “Oprah Winfrey: A Life of Love” takes its cue from O’Brien’s “The Jay-Z Story” which was a comment on color-blind casting? Melodramatic biopics? Cultural appropriation? The piece is funny…it’s just difficult to understand why.
Weekend Update continues to steadily improve as the hosts find their footing…and refine their onscreen chemistry. Both Michael Che and Colin Jost have become edgier this season, lampooning everything from Bernie Sanders’ whiter-than-white ethos to New York City’s squalor to Nebraska’s sexually suggestive license plate design with equal aplomb. This week’s edition also features the welcome return of Kyle Mooney’s brilliantly-conceived Bruce Chandling, the world’s least observant observational comic (“One thing we can all agree on is that women do not get sports!”) He would be sad if he wasn’t so funny.
Musical guest Margo Price demonstrates the range of contemporary country in just two numbers: the melodic, lilting “Since You Put Me Down” and “Hurtin’ (On The Bottle)”—lively, hard-driving, full of bluegrass twang. While “Hurtin” is catchy, it needs more to fully captivate the room, to be bigger in nearly every way. On the other hand, “Since You Put Me Down” perfectly showcases Price’s talent and her phenomenal voice. Soothing, silvery and soulful, it’s the lullaby you wish someone had sung to you as a child. It’s interesting that Price is so good at letting her voice expand in this slower, softer number but struggles to fill the air in the raucous bar song. Overall, a solid, enjoyable performance. And the engaging, unaffected Margo Price easily wins for most charming SNL musical guest of the year.
Saturday Night Live has been more miss than hit this season, but this week’s episode proves that a skilled actor who throws himself a thousand percent into his role as host can make nearly anything funny…even on a rudderless SNL in dire need of a high-level course correction.
NEXT WEEK: Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Nick Jonas
Chris White writes and directs independent feature films. His latest is
a southern gothic comedy starring Patti D’Arbanville and Michael Forest. Follow Chris on Twitter.