Sunday, June 8, 2014


Seth MacFarlane’s half-baked horse opera “A Million Ways to Die in the West” (** OUT OF ****) qualifies as a saddle-sore saga.  This lowest common denominator sagebrush satire boasts low-brow bowel humor, highly offensive language, and gory death scenes.  Despite all these unsavory elements, this western spoof emerges as fair at best and routine at worst.  Sporadically funny jokes and gags cannot conceal the conventions and clichés.  The first problem is the trite Alex Sulkin, Wellesley Wild, and Seth MacFarlane screenplay.  Recently, I watched an Eddie Albert comedy “The Dude Goes West” (1947) that covered similar ground with greater success.  MacFarlane and his co-writers rant about the deplorable conditions governing life on the frontier in the 19th century American west.  The hero and the heroine hate the west.  This revulsion of all things western neither distinguishes MacFarlane’s movie nor makes its humor any funnier.  The only place where “A Million Ways to Die” breaks ground is with its raunchy R-rated jokes.  Some of the jokes hit, but most miss. Some jokes are so vile they might gag the guys in the “Jackass” movies.  Indeed, MacFarlane gets away with a lot in this lame oater, especially during the opening “Gunsmoke” showdown.  The good jokes are really good.  One of the best turns out to be badly told but this serves to accentuate the humor.  The second problem is most of the dialogue sounds like stand-up, comic routines.  Some standup comedy routines are better than others.  The best gag concerns Old West photography.  The running joke is nobody smiles in a photograph in the 19th century.  Nevertheless, the grinning photo attained the status as an urban legend.  Those who aren’t appalled by MacFarlane’s infantile as well as scatological sense of humor will no doubt want to roll in it like a dog in its own feces.  “A Million Ways to Die in the West” struggles to emulate “Blazing Saddles,” deliver dialogue like “Deadwood,” and show off like “Faces of Death.”

The setting of “A Million Ways to Die” is the town of Old Stump in the Arizona Territory in the year 1882.  Our pusillanimous sheep farming protagonist, Albert Stark (Seth MacFarlane of “Ted”), sinks into a state of depression after his schoolmarm girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), dumps him for a snotty lothario, Foy (Neal Patrick Harris of “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle”), who owns a mustache shop.  No, nice-guy Albert doesn’t sport a mustache.  Louise left Albert because she classified him as too cowardly.  During the opening Main Street showdown, Albert drops his six-gun in the dust rather than shoot it out with another gunman.  Later, Albert challenges Foy to a duel.  Meantime, a mysterious woman, Anna (Charlize Theron of “Monster”), shows Albert how to handle a hog-leg.  Anna, as it turns out, is the wife of notorious outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson of “Taken”) who eventually decides to shoot Albert for flirting with his wife.  Basically, boy loses girl, boy tries to get girl back, but takes up with a different girl describes the storyline.  An imbecilic subplot concerns the romance between a hard-working saloon prostitute, Ruth (Sarah Silverman of “Evolution”) and a timid male virgin shoemaker (Giovanni Ribisi of “The Mod Squad”) who has agreed not to have intercourse with her until their wedding night.  Albert and his friends emerge as likeable, sympathetic characters, while Foy, Clinch, and his henchmen are as repulsive as rattlers.

Although best known as the creator of the respective animated series “American Dad” and “Family Guy,” not to mention his previous blockbuster comedy “Ted” with Mark Wahlberg, MacFarlane must have been gambling that he could resurrect a moribund franchise with his impertinent humor.  Westerns have not performed well at the box office since the early 1990s, and even then the genre was riding on borrowed time.  After John Wayne died and Clint Eastwood got too old plains, westerns have never regained their former grandeur.  Disney’s “Lone Ranger” tanked last summer, and only AMC’s “Hell on Wheels” on television has survived with any success.  The Jeff Bridges “True Grit” remake and Quentin Tarantino’s slave saga “Django” are the sole examples of successes.  Nothing about MacFarlane’s approach to the genre justifies its use.  He looks out of place himself with his hopelessly clean-scrubbed, Shoney’s Big Boy looks.  Aside from his profanity, MacFarlane plays the same tenderfoot that Bob Hope, Eddie Albert, Gary Cooper, Don Knotts, or Tim Conway have done in earlier movies and television shows.  Neil Patrick Harris usually steals the show no matter what the material, but he makes only a minor impression with his Snidely Whiplash villain.  Unfortunate Amanda Seyfried has little more to do than bulge her beautiful eyes and swish an umbrella.  Charlize Theron and Liam Neeson wander through their roles.  Colorful cameos by the likes of Christopher Lloyd, Gilbert Gottfried, Ewan McGregor, Jamie Foxx, and Bill Maher prove more stimulating.  “A Million Ways to Die in the West” could have been a million times better.

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