Posted June 13, 2014 by D. K. Holm
Another “death” movie recently released last weekend along with Fault in Our Stars and Edge of Tomorrow is A Million Ways to Die in the West, and I’m baffled as to why the film has received such poor notices and bad word of mouth. In situations such as this, one always turns to Rotten Tomatoes and finds that the comedy has received – as of this writing – a 33% “approval” rating from professionals, and 48% from self-selected viewers. In general, though, I suspect that much of the air of disenchantment issues from people who haven’t seen the film.
Americans are suspicious of versatility, and Seth MacFarlane has set himself up for suspicion. This Rhode Island School of Design graduate has worked as a voice actor and animator, his primary commercial function, mostly for his Fox show Family Guy, but he has also directed and written movies (Ted), produced programs (the Cosmos remake on Fox), and was host on the Oscars one year when the misguided fogeys on the board of directors strove for the youth viewership, with Mr. MacFarlane supposedly flopping to the delight of those probably also didn’t see that broadcast. Worst of all, perhaps, is that Mr. MacFarlane had the money or the clout (or both) to issue a self-produced album of featuring the comic singing 14 standards a la Michael Bublé (“You’re the Cream in My Coffee,” with Mr. MacFarlane on the cover striking a Sinatrian pose before a music stand). As Gore Vidal used to say, it looks like Hugh Bris is back in town.
Americans don’t like versatility because it makes them feel bad about themselves in a culture that is geared to everyone feeling well and un-judged, hence the preponderance of self-help books and “everyone’s a winner” philosophies in grade schools, yet while contradictorily at the same time the nation thrives on tweets filled with hate and withering reviews of body parts. Just another one of the American contradictions. In fact, most of the greatest Americans – Jefferson, Edison Twain, Lamar – were “versatile” in the sense that no one field held them down. But in a complicated age of specialization, those confined to, say, coding, or copyright law, look longingly at the hyphenates who glide from one discipline to another. The fact of the matter is that most of the great entertainers can do a bit of everything, be it musical star-comic actor-action hero Hugh Jackman or, in his way, Jack Lemmon. James Franco is another multi-tasker who draws ire.
A Million Ways to Die in the West was also greeted as a film that treads on the toes of the supposedly superior Blazing Saddles, as if Mel Brooks’s 1974 comedy were the high point of all western satires, rather than a smug, intermittently funny selection of skits on western meta-movie themes. One thing going for Million Ways that it hits the plot points of most westerns in a logical and fluid motion. In addition, it is well-photographed (by Michael Barrett) unlike Blazing Saddles, which had the smudgy backlot look of a bad TV show, which might have been the point – though historically sound comedy directors have no eye for composition, from Norman Panama to Kevin Smith. One of the principles of the auteur approach is that one takes the long view and seen as a whole Mr. Brooks’s comedies are immediate and disposable rather than allusive and undying.
Arizona Territory, 1882. Albert Stark is a sheep farmer in the town of Old Stump, pop. 75. In the grand tradition of Bob Hope and his disciple Woody Allen, Stark is a normal man, which means he is normally a coward. His parents are immobile sourpusses and his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) is a desert version of a mean girl. She dumps him after he his mishap in a showdown that opens the film (the first of three) because Albert’s sheep have been grazing Cliven-Bundy-like on his opponent’s land, ruining it. Albert’s attempts to talk his way out of the situation ruins everyone’s day, especially the town’s idle spectators. The break up is just one more symptom of the west’s hostility to human endeavor. “Everything not you is out to kill you,” he tells his best friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), and his fiancé (Sarah Silverman), a hooker with a 10-trick a day job (when things are slow) who is yet saving herself for marriage to her fellow-Christian. Among the causes of death the viewer bears witness to include a block of ice crushing the head of a mover, flash powder igniting both the photographer and his family subject, a rampaging bull. The mayor’s body has been lying in the street for three days, or at least until a pack of dogs drag it away (his naked foot makes a brief return appearance). Into this dire landscape comes Anna (Charlize Theron), the wife of the region’s most dangerous gunfighter Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), who is out trying to track her down with his gang. Not that she tells Albert who she is. Rather, she teaches him how to use a gun, gives him advice about Louise, drinks him and others under the table, and enjoins him to share a hash brownie, and finally necks with him on the eve of the film’s second showdown, between Albert and Louise’s new boyfriend, the ostentatiously mustachioed Foy (Neil Patrick Harris, once again playing a heartless heterosexual roué).
It’s that scene that has come to symbolize the alleged vulgarity of the film. Foy comes to main street suffering from diarrhea, necessitating a few pitstops along the way using bystander’s hats as bowls. One doesn’t really “see” anything, only hear the offensive experience, so the scene is as “tastefully” done has it can be, while still being hilariously gross. And really, does anyone want tame anodyne clawless comedy?
One question that might arise is why Mr. MacFarlane chose to mock westerns in the first place, given that the genre has not been a vital force since the 1970s, where it was already dying out. In fact, like most stories about the past, it is really about the present. Much of the comedy is directed at the stupidity of the past as a precursor of the future (the present), like a reverse Idiocracy. It mocks conventions of the time: How smiling in photos is viewed as gauche. How playing stick hoops will prevent the young from being able to concentrate or innovate. How Albert and Edward practice fake fist fighting in case a brawl breaks out in the town saloon, so they can pair off on the sidelines like two opposing baseball players in a bench clearer, making dinner plans while looking like they care about the dispute. How everyone is disappointed that he is a sheepherder, rather than a cattle rancher. Albert calls himself a glorified “dog-walker for 150 really stupid dogs.”
Ultimately Clinch discovers the betrayal and sets out to gun down Albert, leading to a succession of escapes and life-saving ideas. David Mamet is said to have praised Galaxy Quest as the perfect screenplay. A Million Ways to Die in the West may also be a perfectly plotted script. Mr. MacFarlane and his credited co-authors, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild from the TV show, lay out in orderly fashion the main tropes of the western genre: showdowns, snakes, bad sherifs, Native Americans as seers, and so on. The only thing missing is a cattle stampede and a stagecoach robbery. Parts of the film are staged in John Ford country, Monument Valley, joining such masterpieces as The Searchers, Back to the Future III (which makes a cameo appearance), National Lampoon’s Vacation, and Once Upon a Time in the West. As in many westerns, the real tale is told sartorially, via boots, gun belts, and hats. Albert’s bowl-topped hat is subtly replace by a more masculine topping, more akin to Anna’s, as he attains self-confidence. The film has a terrific “montage sequence” of Anna teaching Albert to shoot.
The cast is uniformly good. Mr. MacFarlane has an attractive but still mobile and cartoony face, and is simply not as bad as reviewers might say he is. Character actor and western specialist Matt Clark has a cameo has an old prospector. And Ms. Theron manifests the perfect “Cool Girl” as defined by Gillian Flynn in her novel Gone Girl. Her full-bodied horsey laugh is a delight, such as when Albert tells her that one of his lost sheep ended up in the brothel, and by the time he found it the sheep had made twenty dollars. It’s figures such as Anna who give hope and glory in the dire desert of the anti-human west.