Sunday, June 1, 2014


(US - 2014)

Directed by Seth MacFarlane.  Written by Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, and Wellesley Wild.  Cast: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Amanda Seyfried, Giovanni Ribisi, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman, Wes Studi, Evan Jones, Matt Clark, Christopher Hagen, Rex Linn, Alex Borstein, John Aylward. (R, 116 mins)

One of FAMILY GUY and AMERICAN DAD creator Seth MacFarlane's strong suits is his voice acting ability, bringing life to most of the characters on his animated shows as well as to a talking teddy bear in his 2012 feature directing debut TED.  What makes his latest film, A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST, different is that director/producer/co-writer MacFarlane also puts himself front and center as a leading man.  His presence as an actor doesn't offer him the versatility and spontaneity that he demonstrates as various animated characters, and he just doesn't have the chops to carry a movie as "Seth MacFarlane." And make no mistake, that's essentially who he's playing in this western spoof that offers a decidedly 2014-ish MacFarlane as Albert Stark, a sensitive, cowardly sheep farmer with a snark-laden view of the Old West in the kill-or-be-killed 1882 Arizona frontier town of Old Stump.  The Monument Valley location shooting and the sweeping, reverent score by Joel McNeely do a nice surface job of paying homage to John Ford westerns, but with his bland, one-note performance, his propensity for dragging jokes past their breaking point and continuing to beat it to death after that, and his general sense of self-indulgence, MacFarlane gets some scattered laughs but falls far short of hitting the mark.  Forget any absurd comparisons to BLAZING SADDLES--this doesn't even measure up to RUSTLER'S RHAPSODY.

After negotiating his way out of a duel in front of all of the Old Stump townfolk, Albert is dumped by his embarrassed girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried), who runs to the open arms of sneering, pompous mustachery boutique owner Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), who's rich and successful and everything Albert is not. When he's not drowning his sorrows at the saloon with his devoutly religious, repressed best friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and his prostitute wife Ruth (Sarah Silverman), Albert is hanging out with Anna (Charize Theron), the tomboyish crack shot who just arrived in town with her brother Lewis (Evan Jones), who's already in jail for starting a bar brawl.  What Albert doesn't know is that Anna is the wife of dastardly outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), who sent Anna and Lewis to Old Stump to pose as siblings and wait for the arrival of the rest of his gang as they hunt for gold in the region.  With Lewis locked up, Anna realizes this is the perfect chance to escape Clinch's clutches and comes to genuinely like Albert, who's funny and kindly and everything Clinch isn't.  Albert, meanwhile, is obsessing over Louise and asks for Anna's help in winning her back from the insufferably smug Foy.  She helps train him in firing a pistol after he gets so jealous and enraged that he challenges Foy to a gunfight.  Of course, all of their plans go awry when Clinch and the gang arrive in Old Stump earlier than expected, and word gets back to Clinch that his wife's been spending a lot of time with the hapless Albert.

MacFarlane can be a smart satirist and the script (co-written with regular collaborators Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild) gets in a handful of legitimately good laughs about various western cliches, the joylessness of old-timey photos, the sheer misery of what life must've been like back then, and occasional digs at religion, antiquated norms of that time ("Why are the Indians so mad all the time?  We share this land with them, it's pretty much 50/50" and a carnival shooting gallery game called "Runaway Slave" are particularly stinging), and the present-day culture wars ("Oh, Parkinson's is one of those things that God gives you that somehow shows how much He loves you"). Anachronistic humor is inherent in this kind of thing, but MacFarlane just doesn't have the screen presence to make it work. Neither his character nor his performance are very funny. Too much of A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST is focused on Albert's whining about Louise and on his slowly-blossoming romance with Anna.  MacFarlane may be a gifted voice actor, but on the screen himself, he never seems comfortable and a lot of the script seems to be geared toward stroking his own ego, whether Theron's Anna is laughing at everything he says or constantly affirming what a nice guy he is and how he deserves someone better than the shallow Louise. Theron does a good job of playing the always-appealing, no-bullshit, "just one of the guys" types, but she can't really sell the idea of finding the self-pitying, constantly-complaining Albert that interesting.  The supporting cast is mostly wasted, but Harris steals the film with his inspired turn as the loathsome Foy, especially when he makes Louise suck the end of his perfectly waxed mustache while he fondles himself.  But even Harris is forced to succumb to the frequent bouts of MacFarlane's toilet humor--quite literally, at one point. After being introduced early on, Neeson is absent until the third act, so he doesn't really have time to make Clinch Leatherwood (a great name, by the way) anything more than a two-dimensional caricature of a western heavy.

One criticism that's rightfully been leveled at MacFarlane over the years is the way he finds humor in beating a joke to within an inch of its life (think FAMILY GUY's infamous Conway Twitty cutaways or Peter Griffin's epic brawls with Ernie the Giant Chicken).  Here, MacFarlane isn't content with a couple of mustache jokes when 15 will do, and even then he'll tack on two musical numbers about mustaches just to be sure.  Even the funny observation about stone-faced people in photos of the era is rehashed multiple times. The most labored jokes center on the relationship between Edward and Ruth.  Ruth is Old Stump's busiest prostitute, but she refuses to have sex with Edward before marriage. Edward goes to the whorehouse to wait until she's done working, and even uses his finest handkerchief to wipe "dirty cowboy cum" off of her face.  The joke of Edward waiting downstairs while she loudly screws Old Stump's skeeziest is funny once, so of course MacFarlane repeats it five more times.  His set-ups are also getting predictable.  As Edward and Ruth leave for lunch, the madam (Alex Borstein) tells Ruth she's got someone planning to see her around 5:30 that day.  "What does he want?" Ruth asks.  Now, if you've seen enough of MacFarlane's work, you know the answer will be "Anal," and it is.  But it's not enough.  Edward and Ruth have to somehow be confused about how soon they should be back, and need clarification on what time the guy will be there.  "Whenever he feels like putting his penis in your asshole," the madam tells her.  "Anal" was predictable but amusing.  But MacFarlane just lets the scene go on and on.  And then Ruth can't sit down because, yes, her asshole hurts. This happens time and again throughout the film, and with its nearly two-hour running time, it goes on entirely too long.  Just when things should be heating up for the confrontation between Albert and angry Clinch, MacFarlane sends the story an unfunny, running-time-padding detour which finds Albert hanging out with Cochise (Wes Studi) and drinking a hallucinogenic potion that has him tripping and the film looking like the old west version of a Storm Thorgerson-designed album cover. Why? Because nobody's going to stop him, that's why.

A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST isn't a terrible movie, but it's not a very good one.  It probably could've been a little better with someone other than MacFarlane in the lead.  He tries to go for a sort-of Jason Bateman-type demeanor with his snide detachment and wry observations pointing out the absurdity of his surroundings, but instead, he's loud, aggressive, and annoying. There's simply too much Seth MacFarlane in this movie. He also tries to milk some easy laughs out of several cameos, but only one approaches the sheer insanity of James Woods voicing himself as "James Woods" on FAMILY GUY, and making Peter watch VIDEODROME (Peter: "Does anyone get naked in this?"  Woods: "Yeah.  I do") or FLASH GORDON's Sam J. Jones turning up as himself in TED.  What MacFarlane doesn't understand about parody is that it has to be done from a place of genuine affection. That's why the one really inspired cameo here works as well as it does. That's also what shines through in the best work of Mel Brooks and the ZAZ team in their AIRPLANE/TOP SECRET heyday, and that's why those parodies are timeless. While very disappointing, A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST is nowhere near the depths of say, a typical Friedberg/Seltzer abomination like DATE MOVIE or MEET THE SPARTANS. But it does share with those films a certain fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to parody something.  Most of the dud jokes here--and there's a lot of them--would probably work as single brief cutaways in a FAMILY GUY episode, but MacFarlane's script isn't nearly as funny as he thinks it is and he doesn't seem to realize that parodying something at feature length requires a bit more than being a flippant smartass.

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