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Friday, May 30, 2014

A Million Ways to Die in the West

A Million Ways to be Disappointed

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Traditional westerns pitted virtuous heroes against dastardly villains. Even if you were a tad obtuse, you could readily distinguish the good guys from the bad guys by the color of their hats.

More recently, revisionist westerns, like Unforgiven, Open Range and Appaloosa, offered a more visually nuanced and realistic depiction of the 19th-century American frontier. The idealized version of True Grit in the original Henry Hathaway/John Wayne film provides a stark contrast with the Coen Brothers/Jeff Bridges remake of the same source novel.

Seth McFarlane (television’s “Family Guy,” Ted) is the writer, producer, director and star of A Million Ways to Die in the West. He attempts to use humor to deconstruct the western genre. McFarlane superimposes a post-modernist sensibility onto this bygone era.

Set in Arizona Territory circa 1882, the film depicts life in the Old West as a bleak experience. Death—be it at the hands of outlaws, renegade Native Americans, wild animals, famine or poor medical care—lurked around every corner. Does this cesspool of despair sound like the setting for a comedy?  

As the film opens, residents of Old Stump line Main Street, eager to witness a pending gunfight between protagonist Albert (McFarlane) and an enraged cattle rancher. Due to Albert’s ineptitude as a shepherd, his flock has wandered onto the neighbor’s land and overgrazed it. Ongoing disputes over grazing and water rights often escalated into armed battles. Shane, inspired by the Johnson County Range Wars in Wyoming, best captured this historical reality. 

However, here Albert seeks to avoid a potentially lethal gunfight. He acknowledges culpability and offers financial compensation to the rancher. As a consequence of his rational approach, townsfolk brand Albert as a coward.

Immediately thereafter, Albert’s girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him and begins consorting with Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). He is the owner/operator of the town’s moustachery, where he sells grooming products for the hirsute.

Albert has only one friend, Edward (Giovanni Ribisi). Whenever a bar brawl erupts, the two craven wimps avoid it by staging a carefully orchestrated faux fight. In it, they exchange phantom punches. Edward is affianced to Ruth (Sarah Silverman), a prostitute, who services as many as 15 men a day. Since Edward and Ruth are both devout Christians, they have avoided premarital sex.

The most dangerous man in the territory is the notorious outlaw, Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson). He is planning to execute a major robbery. In the interim, he dispatches his wife, Anna (Charlize Theron), to wait for him in Old Stump. After years of being married to a cold-blooded killer, how will Anna react to a basically decent, albeit timorous guy, like Albert?

There is no shortage of gags in this film. Alas, few of them are funny. There are a disconcerting number of jokes using feces as subject matter. One particularly revolting vignette involves Neil Patrick Harris, stricken with diarrhea, relieving himself into hats, ripped off the heads of bystanders. Other lame attempts at humor involve sexual peccadilloes. These jokes are less clever than gratuitously raunchy. The racial jokes include a shooting game at the annual town fair, titled Runaway Slave.

Filmed in Monument Valley, Utah, the stunning cinematography by Michael Barrett consciously evokes the classic westerns of John Ford, who used the same locale. The rousing score by Joel McNeely would also be an apt for a traditional western.  Both are ill-considered mismatches for this broad comedy.

The film has one excellent segment. In it, Albert is captured by Cochise (Wes Studi) and his band of Apaches. They are poised to burn him at the stake. Impressed when Albert displays his fluency in the Apache language, Cochise instead invites him to participate in a tribal ceremony. Albert imbibes a powerful potion. The resulting hallucination is wildly imaginative and is vastly superior to the balance of the film.

Despite a few inspired moments, A Million Ways to Die in the West ends up mired in mediocrity. The film has lofty aspirations to be the Blazing Saddles of this generation. Instead, it turns out to be no more memorable than City Slickers.