Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Million* Ways to Die in the West

"A Million Ways to Die in the West" is a strange kind of animal.  It feels like a nice earnest comedy paying tribute to old Westerns,  somehow trapped within a vulgar late-season "Family Guy" episode mercilessly mocking anything it can get its hands on.  It's what happens if you mate "Blazing Saddles" with "Scary Movie".  Only about half of this movie actually works, therefore, and it is usually the lighter friendlier jokes.  I found myself watching what felt like was two movies all at once.  One of those movies I am fully willing to recommend... and as for the the other one, I'm ashamed to even be discussing it on this blog.

When "A Million Ways to Die in the West" is working, it has a charming leading man in its director/producer/co-writer, Seth MacFarlane, creator of "Family Guy" and the feature film, "Ted", a very successful raunchy comedy from 2012.  He plays Albert Stark, a sheep herder disillusioned with the violent world of the Old West.  He's got great chemistry with his co-star, Charlize Theron, played Anna, a new visitor to Stark's town.  MacFarlane may not be the world's most natural actor - he is forced to rely upon staging his scenes like stand-up routines for the most part, mostly giving monologues to the other characters.  But this character works well when just being a nerdy rancher completely out of his depth in this cliche town.  The core of the movie is solid.

...Then it's all spoiled when the "Family Guy"-style humor creeps in.  Gags are recycled without mercy, some of the worst jokes in the film are given the most time, such as shameless reference to "Back to the Future 3", and worst of all, terrible toilet humor cuts in.  You have MacFarlane making a pretty funny and natural sounding riff about "a full load", which gets believable laughter from his co-star, and then suddenly a scene later we got sheep dick.  Big sheep hard-ons pissing on the actor's face.  Thanks, MacFarlane.  Do you have any idea how awful I feel having to write about the reproductive systems of livestock?  And that's not the only sheep dick scene, there are two.  One actor takes a runny shit into a ten-gallon hat, and then goes right on to take another shit in another man's hat.  What happened to the charming Western parody I enjoyed?  Gone, literally replaced by shit.  The movie is still generally a positive experience, but how can I justify this?  How can anybody?

The plot of "A Million Ways to Die" is roughly a pantomime of the 1985 surrealist teen comedy "Better Off Dead", only with a gun fight replacing the ski race.  Albert Stark is a hopeless dorky loser, a natural hero for a comedy.  Thirty years ago you could see this character being played with a nervous Jewish panache by Woody Allen.  The movie opens with Stark talking his way out of a gunfight by making a reasonable offer and resolving the situation amiably.  Unfortunately this so disappoints everybody in the town, who just wanted naked brutality to bleed into the sand, that Albert's ditzy girlfriend, Louise, properly played by the ditzy Amanda Seyfried, dumps him.  Soon enough Louise is fellating the curly handlebar mustache of the richest man in town, Foy (Neil Patrick Harris).  Albert in an unusual for him fit of masculinity, challenges Foy to a gunfight.  But since Stark could not hit a bottle from two inches away, he has to be trained in the ways of gunslinging by the incredibly talented Anna.

There is nothing in this picture I do not like.
A small wiggle is added to the story though when it turns out that Anna is the wife of the most notorious gunfighter in the county, Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson).  The Old West is already built up to be a place of ridiculous danger - huge cartoony death scenes punctuate the story every so often MacFarlane needs a gag to end his scenes - but things are much worse with a maniac outlaw on Albert's tail.  On the other hand, this does mean that "A Million Ways to Die" is not merely giving Albert a dream girl to solve all of his problems a la Diane Franklin's magical French muse in "Better Off Dead".  Anna is giving Albert something by boosting his confidence and he's giving her an alternative to her horrible husband.  I like this dynamic.

Liam Neeson's character actually is a small part of a bigger problem with "A Million Ways to Die in the West".  Leatherwood is played completely straight, with Neeson giving a small bit of Irish menace to the movie.  There are moments where he gets very close to raping Anna, and to MacFarlane's credit, nothing about it is a joke.  I know "Family Guy" would not have this kind of restraint.  But it feels schizophrenic when you realize that a few scenes ago was completely wacky comedy about mustache porn.  "A Million Ways to Die in the West" cannot seem to figure out what kind of comedy it wants to be.  There are comedies with no rules at all, the entire world is one big insane land of nonsense.  And there are comedies were basically it is the real world, except the situations are exaggerated and ridiculous, and the characters themselves are very funny. 

MacFarlane, in his usual sloppy way, does everything at once.  The idea of a dork taking John Wayne's place in a standard Western film is plenty funny.  But then MacFarlane adds strange bits of anti-humor:  the obsession with mustaches as a symbol of wealth is a joke run so long it has to be a jab at the audience somehow.  Or jokes that make no sense at all, and have no basis in any reality, such as Giovanni Ribisi's chaste relationship with Sarah Silverman, who is the dirtiest whore on the Frontier.  How do time traveling DeLoreans, buttfucking jokes, and a real outlaw all manage to work together in one universe?

The answer is that they don't.

The movie looks faithful to the tropes of the genre.  Then somebody farts.
"A Million Ways to Die in the West" feels exactly like an Old Western should, with its sets being wooden structures built in the deserts of Monument Valley, accompanied by a triumphant classical soundtrack.  Joely McNeely's glorious score, which sounds like it was ripped right from the greatest classics of the 1950s cowboy films, wears its roots on its sleeve proudly.  I cannot say "A Million Ways to Die" would have been half as good if not for the authenticity brought by the music.  You get the sense MacFarlane understands Westerns and wants to poke fun at the overblown cliches of danger of the genre - anybody with good sense would have fled from this kind of world decades ago.  His character constantly moans about running away to San Francisco.  This is charming and mildly funny.

Then, just like a later season of "Family Guy", the joke goes too far or the movie runs out of steam.  "A Million Ways to Die" is a legitimately funny movie, but it will never be a masterpiece of comedy.  The best humor again comes from either the over-the-top ways people die, nearly all of which were used in the trailers already, and the simple chemistry of MacFarlane and Theron.  Even there, some gags are uncomfortable and off, like a weird discussion of how a Black guy be disappointed by a late 19th century bustle.  It is one of jokes that immediately take the air out of the room.  That's the sort of shameful moment that haunts you for a decade and a half.  Unfortunately "A Million Ways to Die" hits a logical climax around the ninety minute mark, and then makes the decision to keep running for another unnecessary half hour.  There are cool points here, such as a completely straight horse chase through the fields, and a weird drugged-out dream sequence featuring Salvador Dali-style giraffe sheep.  Oh but then there's another sheep dick scene.  Fuck.

So close to the mark, but still missing.  Pretty much MacFarlane's whole career now.
"Ted" was a surprising success and an extremely funny movie, despite some small flaws here and there.  "A Million Ways to Die in the West" though feels like MacFarlane is already starting to run out of steam just two movies into his nascent film career.  One begins to worry about the man's future, what kind of monstrosity he might unleash with his third film.  MacFarlane is an extremely talented man, very funny, a very good singer, and he knows how to entertain an audience.  But he doesn't seem to be somebody who takes criticism well, when faced with grumbles about how wretched "Family Guy" had become, he doubled down and made something even worse.  Nearly every episode has been an abomination since Season 5.  "A Million Ways to Die in the West" feels already like we've reached Season 4 of "Family Guy", the joke is already running just a bit stale, the writers are getting just a bit desperate to fill out the running time.  Left with no better ideas, MacFarlane just goes for as gross as possible, cruelly mocking his own audience for watching the show.

I'm left with a very flawed film that I think I'm going to recommend ultimately.  You have to know, this movie is not much of a success, it only barely works.  There is a lot to not like, but actually a lot to like.  Beyond the bullshit and the mistakes, I think there is a strong loving core at the center of this movie.  Unless that too is all some elaborate stupid irony against audience expectations.  But even if I was fooled, I enjoyed my time with "A Million Ways to Die in the West".  MacFarlane is not perfect leading man material, he's not a perfect director - he's in desperate need of finding somebody to frame his shots for him, but he works well on camera with his co-star, he's charming enough, and the jokes though not enough to keep you rolling the aisles, are funny enough.  With a bit of editing, you could slice this movie film down to a PG-13, and it would be much better for it.  I am cautiously happy with this movie.  So maybe you should cautiously go see it.

* There are only seventeen ways to die in the West in this movie according to my count.  Eleven ways are shown directly on camera, and the remainder are anecdotes of ways people have died, such as a schoolteacher who got her throat slit on a tumbleweed.  There are other ways mentioned, such as cholera or Indian raids, but they are not shown or given direct proof of actually killing somebody, so they do not count.

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