Thursday, May 29, 2014

A comic western gets thrown from its horse

A Million Ways to Die in the West floods the screen with gags. Most of them don't work.
Watching A Million Ways to Die in the West, a new comedy from Seth MacFarlane, I wondered about Hollywood. Why has an obviously clever comic with good looks and a gameshow smile been given the opportunity to over-indulge what seem like fantasies created by watching too many Westerns?

Maybe it's because MacFarlane tries (boy, does he try) to make us laugh with intentionally placed anachronisms, a surfeit of fart jokes and many other crude expressions that make it seem as if he's testing puerile limits by focusing on all manner of bodily excretions.

When I first saw the trailer for A Million Ways to Die in the West, it struck me that MacFarlane might have hitched his horse to a wagon that long ago left the stable. The Western has been parodied before, most prominently in Mel Brooks' classic Blazing Saddles (1974).

Alas, I was right -- or at least I think I was. From its opening credits -- presented in the style of big-scenery westerns popular in the 1950s -- it seemed that MacFarlane's trip west would be marked by a mixture of dubious taste and comic irrelevance.

The movie's major insight goes something like this: Life on the frontier was miserable in nearly every regard, offering many opportunities for those who braved the western wilds to meet with doom, degradation and wounded pride.

To make his point, MacFarlane plays Albert, a sheep farmer who lives with his parents.

During the course of the movie, Albert complains about the West and is rejected by the local schoolmarm (Amanda Seyfried).

Albert eventually finds true love with the wife (Charlize Theron) of a brutally cruel outlaw (Liam Neeson).

Suffice it to say that each of the aforementioned actors seems to be working in a different movie. Seyfried can't seem to find a handle on a character who abandons the hapless Albert for a man who runs the local mustache shop (Neil Patrick Harris), an emporium that seems to specialize in a Snidely Whiplash look.

As a woman who knows how to wield a six-shooter, Theron seems committed to acting as an audience for MacFarlane, reacting as if her paycheck depended on turning herself into his personal laugh track.

Neeson mostly plays things straight, adding to the tonal confusion that prevails throughout most of this lengthy comic ride. The movie lasts for 116 minutes, many of them marked by inertness at their core.

It might be of some help to catalog the various jokes. The most repetitive of them involves the local brothel where a hooker (Sarah Silverman) plies her trade.

Silverman's Ruth talks freely about her work to her fiancee (Giovanni Ribisi), an avowed Christian who agrees that he shouldn't sleep with Silverman's character until they're properly married.

Repetition is also evident in the movie's several gunfights, which breed little tension and lots of fretting about when MacFarlane plans to bring the proceedings to a close.

The movie even includes a lengthy fantasy sequence, which is supposed to depict a drug-induced trip that MacFarlane's character experiences when he meets Cochise (Wes Studi).

Some of the jokes undermine themselves. MacFarlane probably was trying to make a comment about western racial attitudes with a bit that takes place at a shooting gallery at a county fare. The shooting gallery theme: Shoot a runaway slave.

It's a misfire: The offensiveness of the conceit trumps any satirical point MacFarlane migth have had in mind.

Say this: MacFarlane isn't shy about turning his humor on himself, most notably when a sheep urinates on his face. Yes, it's disgusting.

Some of MacFarlane's one liners have a sharpness about them. At one point he says that tending sheep is like trying to walk 150 really stupid dogs at the same time.

But MacFarlane's comic vision seems mired in conflict. He tries to pay homage to the grand scenery of Westerns while at the same time trashing the romanticism that has enriched the genre.

A Million Ways to Die in the West probably will attract some interest, primarily because MacFarlane scored big with Ted, a comedy about a foul-mouthed teddy bear. MacFarlane directed Ted, and also provided the bear's voice, which meant he remained off screen. He proved that he could garner laughs from a one-joke movie.

In A Million Ways to Die in the West, MacFarlane founders with a comedy that bombards us with one-liners, sight gags, gross-outs, and a cornucopia of jokes, most of them unbuoyed by anything resembling comic exuberance.

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