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A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

Saddles Baggage

Your reaction to Seth MacFarlane's A Million Ways to Die in the West may vary by your appreciation of MacFarlane himself. If you hate his TV show Family Guy (and its various spin-offs), and his surprise 2012 blockbuster, Ted, there's likely no convincing you to even watch the writer/director/scatologist-in-chief's new comedy. Fans may have difficulty accepting this misfire of a Blazing Saddles/Better Off Dead hybrid--simply because it's not enough like the work that put MacFarlane on the map. Both camps would be remiss in writing off A Million Ways to Die in the West, though: it's a mess, sure, but one that's intermittently entertaining and consistently fascinating.

The film opens on a montage of sweeping desert vistas (set to Joe McNeely's old-timey-adventure score) before settling on the main drag of Old Stump, Arizona in 1882. A gunfight is about to start, but one of the two shootists is late. Cowardly shepherd Albert Stark (MacFarlane) comes panting down the street, apologizing for his lateness and then trying to talk his way out of imminent death--in a clunky, self-aware stand-up routine that lets everyone know this isn't your typical Western. Right off the bat, the jokes don't land until several minutes in, and we're left with a vamping, anachronistic whiner who thinks he's Woody Allen and sounds like Brian the Dog.

Sure, we're given a slice of narration that explains Stark's modern attitudes and observations; he's a man ahead of his time, or born in the wrong time--or something. But that doesn't explain almost everyone else in the film, who are either similarly self-aware cartoon characters or Old West stereotypes on-hand only to serve as the objects of poop jokes and/or the vicious, titular killings. When it was spoiled awhile ago that Christopher Lloyd pops up in the movie as Back to the Future's time-hopping Doc Brown, I assumed there might be a back-story (or at least a line) involving Albert's time-space displacement. But, no, A Million Ways to Die in the West simply bangs around, dishing cute meta-observations about life in the old days while also trying to be a real movie about them.

The film's spiritual forebears, Better Off Dead and Blazing Saddles, were keen satires of their respective genres: the teen comedy and the Western. McFarlane's love for shoot-outs and prairie musicals is undeniable, but he should have either aimed at a legit comedy in the genre or gone the all-out-farce route. Savage Steve Holland and Mel Brooks didn't muddy the waters by pretending their out-of-the-box absurdities would ever be taken seriously as a ski movie or a Western; their films contain moments of genuine tenderness, sure, but they are orchestrated rather than shoehorned in. MacFarlane seems to think he's making three movies: a Western, a comedy, and a foul-mouthed, ironic comment on both.

Taken separately, all three of these elements work, to a degree. MacFarlane's dark comic timing and willingness to "go there" make for a handful of surprising chuckles ("It's so bad around here, the school teacher got her throat a speeding tumbleweed."). But we hop from jokes about slavery and raunchy sex acts to scenes of genuine drama that literally belong in another movie.

When Charlize Theron pops up as Anna, the beautiful, gun-slinging wife of Liam Neeson's deadly bandit, Clinch Leatherwood, A Million Ways to Die in the West switches gears. It's not that Theron lacks comic timing--she's just not called upon to use it, acting instead as the female lead in a period-costume romantic dramedy. Neeson, too, apparently got the pre-gag version of the script, as did Evan Jones who, as a member of Clinch's gang, paints a creepy, bullying figure that's wholly out of place in a film where Neil Patrick Harris repeatedly shits into hats.

On a related note, can I take a moment to marvel at Theron? Of course I can. Without her playing Albert's classy-but-sassy, utterly gorgeous, hang-with-the-dudes best friend, there would simply be no movie. Theron's sculpted star features don't hurt, but she has a genuine presence that almost carries MacFarlane's droopy-eyed blankness in their quieter scenes; I can say with all confidence that the two have terrific on-screen chemistry--a chemistry created entirely by whatever spell-binding radiance the actress has secretly cultivated.

I haven't delved into the plot because it really is Better Off Dead with showdowns: Albert gets dumped by his cold, ambitious girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) for a preening rich guy (Harris). A hot girl shows up in town and, through montage, helps our hero build enough confidence to take on said rich guy in a publicly announced competition. It's not the worst story structure to steal, but there are still forty minutes left to the movie after this main thread wraps up. Fortunately, the dullness of Neeson as the center of a cockamamie revenge plot is momentarily glossed over by a terrifically imaginative (and really funny) peyote-trip scene. But mostly, to paraphrase Stand By Me, we just keep wagon-training.

It would be really neat if Universal released two versions of the film when it hits home video: one, a theatrical cut; the other, a trio of shorts in which each of the main movie's competing genres are given their due. I came out of the theatre really wanting to see Theron, Neeson, and Jones do a Western heist picture, and clamored for a balls-to-the-wall genre-send-up in MacFarlane's comic voice. The third cut would be a dopey sitcom, I guess, involving Sarah Silverman and Giovanni Ribisi's characters. Come to think of it, let's stick with two short films.

I can recommend this movie only to the comedically adventurous--that is, folks who don't mind the gag stream winding around several rocks and pebbles on its way to the river. There are self-contained pockets of greatness here, but MacFarlane's second attempt at a mainstream summer comedy is a bit too experimental and confused to appeal to anyone but himself (for having gotten away with it). There may be a million ways to die in the West, but in this case, laughter isn't one of them.

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