, 116 m., 2014
Seth MacFarlane (Albert), Charlize Theron (Anna), Amanda Seyfried (Louise), Liam Neeson (Clinch), Giovanni Ribisi (Edward), Neil Patrick Harris (Foy), Sarah Silverman (Ruth), Wes Studi (Cochise), Evan Jones (Lewis). Directed by Seth MacFarlane and produced by Jason Clark, MacFarlane, and Scott Stuber. Screenplay by MacFarlane & Alec Sulkin & Wellesley Wild.
From the big, expansive shots of Monument Valley, home to so many classic Westerns by John Ford, to the rousing opening score and the larger-than-life titles with a golden, sunburned hue, Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West seems to be setting us up for a non-ironical take on the old-fashioned American genre. MacFarlane being MacFarlane, however, this cannot last. Of course, this will be a Blazing Saddles-esque attempt at skewering the genre MacFarlane seems bent on recreating.
The plot: Albert (MacFarlane himself, all doe-eyed, pasty-skinned and sarcastic) is a sheep farmer in late 1800s Arizona who, as the film opens, talks his way out of a gunfight only to have his big-eyed girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried of both Les Miserables and shot-in-my-hometown-craptacular Gone) break up with him immediately afterward. She wants a real man. There is some irony, then, in MacFarlane casting Neil Patrick Harris (the openly gay star of TV’s Doogie Hower, M.D. who grew up to play womanizing Barney on How I Met Your Mother) as the dandy, mustachioed Foy, who seems to steal Louise practically overnight. Add to this his increasing frustration at all the ways in which the West can kill you from unsophisticated doctors to gun and knife-fights to Indian attacks and even freak accidents (apparently, often, at the County Fair), and he’s a ticking time-bomb of destruction (both of self, and potentially others).
So Albert is already having a rough week, but not as rough as the life being lived by his best pal Edward (a sweet, lispy and foppish Giovanni Ribisi), a virginal Christian whose girlfriend is the sweet if foul-mouthed Christian prostitute Ruth (Sarah Silverman). Edward and Ruth have never consummated their relationship, but she will greet him with an attempted kiss only to be turned away with what I believe the hookers on Deadwood used to call “cock breath” as well as make appointments for anal sex with practical strangers. Some of her clients even wave and call him by name after screaming at her to get upstairs so they can…well, you know.
Meanwhile, it doesn’t take Albert too long to get over Louise, attempting to make her jealous by keeping company with the new girl in town, Anna (Charlize Theron), a mysterious, gun-slinging blonde of good humor, fast hands and faster wit. Turns out, of course, she is the former child bride (all grown up) of the only interestingly-named character in the film, Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson in full black-hat mode), who intends on riding into their “awesome town” (as Albert calls it) to make a sinister rendezvous.
So that’s the setup. MacFarlane, creator of TV’s Family Guy, American Dad, the ill-fated spinoff The Cleveland Show, and writer-director of the uproariously funny R-rated talking teddy bear comedy Ted (2012) – which was one of the funnier comedies of recent years – takes the basic approach that Brooks took to many films, not least of which was Blazing Saddles (1974), which is to throw a ton of stuff at the wall and see what sticks. Unfortunately, MacFarlane only seems interested in throwing shit (and piss, and gas, and other things – seriously, did the dude ever meet a secretion – either human OR animal – that he didn’t find fascinating?). Occasionally the screenplay does allow for a keen observation on a Western trope, stereotype or cliche…but there’s always another poop joke around the corner.
This being MacFarlane, the film wouldn’t be complete without a musical number, and in this case we get his take on the Stephen Foster-written “If You’ve Only Got a Mustache,” led by a square dancing Harris. It’s funny, annoying – and catchy. Seriously, try getting this song out of your head days later.
As performances go, I could’ve seen a whole (different) film about the bizarre relationship between Ribisi’s sweet, foppish Christian virgin and Silverman as his sweet, Christian prostitute girlfriend. Charlize Theron seems more than up to the task that MacFarlane has set for her, delivering profanity-strewn jokes with aplomb and making us like and care about the villain’s girlfriend as our ostensible “hero” seemingly effortlessly wins her affections. On the other side of the coin there’s vacuous Amanda Seyfried as the alarmingly large-eyed hero’s ex-girlfriend, an embarrassing Neil Patrick Harris as the mustache-shop-owning interloper who steals her away, and Liam Neeson as the villain, who seems to have wandered in from an altogether more terrifying and darker Western. That leaves MacFarlane himself as our would-be hero, who seems to have gone back in time just to make smirking jokes at the expense of anyone who isn’t a postmodernist-humored, arrested adolescent in the body of a late-30s/early 40s man.
This leads to one of the two funniest gags in the film, both involving hilarious celebrity cameos. The first, ruined in the latest trailers, involves a certain circa-late 1980s/early 1990s doctor who took a Delorean back in time to the Old West and faced both the possibility of changing ancient history, thus erasing future events from the history books, as well as the odd incongruity of ZZ Top performing at a community dance (a sight that might not be out of place in this film). Sadly, MacFarlane doesn’t seem too interested in pursuing this as a plot twist helping to explain his post-modernist bent.
The second, and by far funnier, involves an Indian-influenced drug experience giving rise to the memory of a visit from an unlikely stand-up comedian and Comedy Central Roast fixture playing a certain ex-President (of the long dead variety). It was so unexpected and hilarious, I was nearly in pain laughing. This, sadly, is more than I can say for the rest of the film, which is very hit and miss.
The problem, I think, is that MacFarlane is good in small doses (as on TV, hiding behind animated voices) or when he has a truly inspired screenplay like Ted. When he’s not hosting a Comedy Central Roast, but instead (offensively) hosting the Oscars or trying to sell himself as a living, breathing person, he’s less successful. The success of both those earlier ventures overall probably lent itself to this project, which doesn’t seem to know what it wants to say about the West that’s funny with the possible exception of “there are so many things out here that can kill you.” Indeed, MacFarlane finds increasingly gruesome ways to off people throughout…but so what? As a filmmaker, however, he hasn’t really matured. While MacFarlane and his cinematographer manage to create big, beautiful (seemingly non-enhanced) shots of their Monument Valley locations, those shots are undermined by the way in which MacFarlane shoots his gags. Typical joke: MacFarlane says something. Cut to: an off-center angle with odd eyelines of some random extra saying something in response as the ostensible punchline or laughing as if in another space from what they’re reacting to. In fact, if I thought it would be worth the results, I would do an in-depth analysis of this film’s use of cutaways and its measurement of eyelines. It has been suggested this could be an intentional send-up of how most Westerns were crappily edited, but is it that inside of a joke or merely lazy filmmaking? What tends to work well for him in animation, here hamstrings both MacFarlane and his jokes.
Now about the marketing campaign. Roger Ebert once wrote “The marketing people, whose interest in a movie is focused entirely on selling it, have the same philosophy as salespeople in grocery stores who offer you a piece of cheese on a toothpick. After you have sampled it, you know everything about the cheese except what it would be like to eat the whole thing. Same with trailers that summarize the whole movie.” I can say that whoever edited the trailers for this film seems to have earned their paycheck. The ads for this film made it look like more of the wicked, insane humor of Ted but in the Old West, and I basically never laugh out loud at trailers in the theater but the marketing campaign for this film got me. Sadly, all of the funniest bits (with the exception of the above mentioned cameo) are in the trailer. Well played, marketing team, well played.
So the film is hit and miss, throwing as much stuff at the wall as possible throughout its 116 minute duration and seeing how much of it sticks. If the reviews going in are to be believed, MacFarlane has committed some sort of comedic sin by creating another overlong, “leave everything in” approach to frat-boy comedy ala’ Judd Apatow or Seth Rogen. It’s neither as bad as they say, nor as good as those guys’ work. It’s merely what it is.
One last highlight: Alan Jackson’s title song, co-written by MacFarlane, plays over the ending credits and deserves an Oscar nomination, and hopefully it’s the only context in which we ever see MacFarlane at the Oscars ever again.