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Thursday, May 29, 2014

A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST: In Which Seth MacFarlane Re-imagines the 1800s West Inhabited by Human Versions of 'Ted'

If there's one thing you can say about Seth McFarlane is that he's consistent. For years he's been doing his part to gives a voice to the average American schmuck, and if the box office numbers (2012's hit comedy, Ted, has a sequel in the works) and TV ratings (he's the creator of the hugely popular series Family Guy and The Cleveland Show) have been any indication, he does it quite successfully. 

This year he takes his brand of coarse humor to A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST, a modernized western (in which he stars, directed and co-wrote), which isn't really spaghetti style nor is it particularly slapstick. Rather, it's exactly how it sounds: like someone dropped the 2014 MacFarlane in Arizona in the 1800s to his own dismay. Like, he jumped into a DeLoreon and sped back to the olden days to live among the morally depraved only to make fun of them. Incessantly.

Though MacFarlane's own style (which involves fart jokes) is still very much there for his many die-hard fans, he does manage to slip in the usual tropes found in most westerns: a damsel in distress, "the most dangerous man in the west," the good guy, the whore, and many, many saloon fights. Oh, and the oft underlying bigotry reformed as exasperated ignorance that teeters on insult. It's a fine line to travel when you attempt to include so many images found in a classic western set to the wacky beat of a spoof comedy that doesn't have anything else to say. But MacFarlane goes there, several times.

He plays Albert, a regular Joe whose already menial existence as the world's worst sheep farmer is exacerbated once his main squeeze, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), leaves him for the epically-mustached Foy (Neil Patrick Harris, hamming it up). Wallowing in his own existential crisis amid complaints about everyone around him to his best friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and his girlfriend Ruth (Sarah Silverman), Albert is not just an especially fun character to watch. Most of MacFarlane's elementary school jokes run their course after about 30 minutes into the film, which makes you look for salvation from the other characters.

Though you don't get much of a reprieve anywhere else, you'll definitely want to keep your eyes on Ribisi and Silverman who are absolute riots as the poor virgin and town whore. Their unlikely coupling makes for genuine laugh-out-loud moments that further complicate their core "Christian values." Further, the eternally underrated Ribisi is in his element here as the awkward, shy little man whose "OMG" facial expressions play nicely against MacFarlane's more raunchy approach. And Silverman is delightfully goofy as the bawdy community mistress who's always open for business but otherwise the perfect girlfriend.

But back to the not-so-great parts in the film. Charlize Theron, whose Anna is less damsel and more distress, does her best to re-imagine the weary cliché but ultimately just serves a purpose without providing much more. Though you can tell she's having a great time hanging out with MacFarlane in most her scenes, the two of them were just not as interesting to watch as they should have been. She merely helps move the plot along as a woman on the run from her abusive husband, Clinch (Liam Neeson) aka "the most dangerous man in the west." She may be able to hold her own in a shoot-off and an impromptu bar dance, but she is putty in Clinch's hands. And it is up to the biggest loser in town (Albert) to accidentally save her.

Wait. Let's get back to Neeson for a minute because his performance (or perhaps more accurately, the writing of his character) is so dreadful and cringe-worthy that I couldn't wait for him to leave the screen. Like most films in the genre, the music turns aptly foreboding once he comes on screen. But then any fear you had for him went out the window once you saw him face down with his pants pulled down on the ground, with a flower sticking out of the crack of his butt. Like, seriously. This is actually a scene in the movie. I wept on behalf of all Taken fans. It is that bad.

After watching both Ted and now A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST, I wonder whether there is something lost in MacFarlane's live-action career that he better captures in small screen animation. Because, frankly, I'm just not into it. While I appreciate his audacious approach to comedy, there is just not enough nuance to consider him even as good as a Judd Apatow or even an Adam Sandler (back in his prime). Despite its random yet pleasant enough cameos and an entertaining pair of actors, A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST is just too simple to regard. MacFarlane doesn't seem to have a firm enough grasp of what he's trying to say with it, and as a result the gigantic nature of the film runs away from him. Plus, a rather strange sequence featuring Indians will likely send some viewers over the edge completely.

If Django Unchained restored hope for the new western, A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST sent it reeling backward.

Rating: C- (** out of *****)

A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST is in theaters Friday.


m.brown said...

Excellent post. While I agree with just about everything you've said here, I still think, as a stupid comedy - it works. Even if just barely.

Murtada said...

Yeah I didn't like it at all too

Daniel said...

We are in total agreement on this one. Ribisi and Silverman are a bright spot in the film but they are so underused it criminal.

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