Monday, June 2, 2014

A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST Is Rapid-Fire Comedy That (Mostly) Hits the Mark


- I know that Seth MacFarlane's humor isn't for everyone. Honestly, it works for me about 60% of the time, and bombs the other 40%. To me, MacFarlane deservedly gets flack for going to the pop-culture reference well way too much, treating the mere reference to some beloved or not-so-beloved piece of pop ephemera as a joke in and of itself ("Hey, remember The Goonies?"). And there is some of that in his first feature-film starring vehicle, A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST. But those who slam the movie just because they've jumped on the MacFarlane-ain't-funny bandwagon are selling the film way short. The fact is, the movie is pretty consistently hilarious, and not only that, but there's just a great overall production sensibility at work here. The movie is shot well, looks great, and has an excellent score. It's a labor of love from a guy who clearly has a soft spot for movie Westerns. What MacFarlane needs most is an editor. Someone to cut out the jokes that cross the line from funny to just poor taste, that are ill-advised. MacFarlane walks a tightrope - a lot of times, you sort of see what he's going for, but he gets lazy and doesn't really give us a true joke around some of the low-hanging fruit material. But when he's on his game, and really sets up and pays off jokes well, you've got to give the guy credit - he is capable of creating material that, at its best, is funny-as-hell.

A MILLION WAYS TO DIE follows MacFarlane as Albert, a meek sheep-farmer in the Old West. Albert is despondent after his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) breaks up with him, but he quickly has bigger problems to deal with when he runs afoul of Louie's new boyfriend Foy (a hilarious Neil Patrick Harris). The mustachioed Foy challenges Albert to a shoot-out that the hapless Albert is doomed to lose. His only hope lies with a strange woman who's come to town - Anna (Charlize Theron) - a crack-shot gunfighter who is, unbeknownst to Albert, married (against her will) to the ruthless outlaw Clinch (Liam Neeson). Soon enough, Albert has to deal not just with Foy, but also with the stone-cold Clinch and his gang - even as he develops feelings for Anna.

The story here is really just a backdrop by which to satire the absurdly kill-or-be-killed nature of the Wild West and Western movies. MacFarlane's Albert is pretty much just a Seth MacFarlane proxy - a modern, self-aware, slightly-neurotic guy who would probably be much happier in our modern world of iPhones, self-help, and online-dating than he is in the surival-of-the-fittest Old West. The big joke here is just how easy it is to die in the West - if some disease or other random natural danger doesn't get you, then some asshole with a gun most assuredly will. In the movie, people get crushed by giant blocks of ice, get burned to a crisp by faulty camera-flashes, and get gored by runaway bulls. And shot. A lot of people get shot.

I think some will just inherently dislike, or not get, the way that MacFarlane has his Old West characters speak with a mix of period-appropriate dialogue and 21st-century slang and self-referential humor - with MacFarlane's Albert pretty much playing the part of a dude from 2014 who all but wakes up and finds himself in the 1880's. But the aesthetic lends itself to some really funny moments. That said, MacFarlane as a live-action actor isn't the most magnetic on-screen personality ever seen. His distinct voice is great for animation, but his mannerisms and facial expressions seem not-quite-expressive-enough for comedy, save for the sorts of deadpan sarcasm that characters like Brian the Dog on Family Guy are known for. That said, MacFarlane is what he is, and his character here is fine for what it's meant to be. He doesn't need to be Gene Wilder, and the character doesn't demand it.

Like I said, some jokes fall flat because they aren't really jokes. Cameos that are just there for the sake of producing a quick WTF-worthy moment. Race jokes that don't say anything except reinforcing played-out stereotypes. But luckily, those sorts of whiffs are the exception and not the rule. There are a ton of very, very funny gags. And the supporting cast is filled with A-plus players like NPH, Sarah Silverman, and others who knock their lines out of the park. Silverman as a prostitute saving herself for marriage (but only with her fiance, played to great comedic effect by Giovanni Ribisi), is a scene-stealer. And Neil Patrick Harris just owns every scene he's in, culminating in his big musical number, "The Mustache Song" which is an instant-classic. MacFarlane, on Family Guy and other projects, has always had a real knack for funny and catchy comedic songs, and this one, too, is really great.

Personally, I'm a fan of rapid-fire film comedies, and I dig what MacFarlane is trying to do here. The obvious comparison is Blazing Saddles, although Million Ways has, of course, a much different sensibility and aesthetic. And yet, the DNA here is definitely semi-shared with the likes of Mel Brooks, the Zucker Bros., etc. What MacFarlane does that reminds me of Brooks is that he really does pay homage to the genre that he's parodying. Like I said, the film has a lot of great shots and moments that tip the ol' hat to classic Westerns, and it really does look pretty fantastic and cinematic for a comedy. And the score is really excellent - a big, broad, Disney-fied version of a classic Western score - totally catchy and memorable.

Overall, I consider A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST a win for Seth MacFarlane and team. There are a couple misfires in the movie that will give ammunition to his detractors, but there are so many jokes that kill that, for me, I came away happy that we've got this comedic voice doing these kinds of comedies. And I hope that we see more from MacFarlane like this. The guy can be frustrating, because it feels like he's not great at reigning in his worst comedic instincts, so you have to take the good with the bad. But let's face it, most comedies of this ilk - even the great ones - have some jokes that miss the mark. But ultimately, I was laughing pretty damn consistently through the duration of the film, and was really impressed with the sharpness of the vast majority of the jokes. All of the fun Wild West trimmings didn't hurt either. I say ignore the critics on this one - if you dig Family Guy, Ted, or other MacFarlane-created comedy, you will find a lot to like here.

My Grade: B+

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