Sunday, June 1, 2014

Movie Review: A Million Ways to Die in the West

In the follow up to his directorial debut with Ted, Seth Macfarlane travels westward in order to upend the former Hollywood tradition of glorifying old frontiersmen with decades of films centered around cowboys and gunslingers, sheriffs and bandits. It was once believed there was a nobility to the rugged individualism of Cowboy life; living off the land, working hard, a statement about social and economic hierarchy in the position of labor against their capitalist employers/barons, etc. It was also cheap to make movies out of them. The most notable were the westerns that came out of Italy, so named "Spaghetti Westerns". Hundreds were made in the span of two decades, of which the ones that come out on top were directed by Sergio Leone and starred Clint Eastwood. They generally follow an understood path. A law bringer comes to a lawless territory and cleans up, be the criminals bandits, killers, or Native Americans. Lessons about honor and loyalty are had at the expense of innocents caught in the crossfire.

 Macfarlane, a man who makes his living with dick jokes but practically oozes classic Americana chic (he possesses a breathtakingly similar tenor to Frank Sinatra, as they had the same vocal coaches), has created a movie apart from Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained or the Coen brothers True Grit. Where they seek to emulate and evolve the older techniques and styles in homage, Macfarlane has attempted a complete resurrection. However, in retaining his usual dick joke shtick, he stops short of a full restoration and winds up with a creation fueled by a madness akin to Frankenstein. It's actually strangely fortunate because the homunculus it could have been (what Ted was) and the resulting creation now in theaters makes it a much more fascinating film to watch as a result.      
Albert Stark, MacFarlane, is a sheep farmer with a motor mouth. Despite his meager upbringing he also has some intelligence to him whereas everyone around him is either a goddamn idiot, a fool, or smart but all too eager to take advantage of the goddamn idiots and fools. After a group of bandits steal a prospector's gold, they split up and head in opposite directions along the frontier to evade the law. When one of them, Anna (Charlize Theron), encounters Albert Stark and his honest heart in a town that had already consumed hundreds like his, she decides to help him learn to be more confident in getting his ex-girlfriend back. In so doing, would she start to feel real emotions for him while he decidedly loves another?

Amanda Seyfried plays Louise, the traditional, trading up ex-girlfriend, and unfortunately her role could have been equally filled by a plank of wood for all the emoting and acting she gets to do. Of everyone it seems like Neil Patrick Harris was the only one who got to have fun with his part as the sleazy purveyor of hair and moustache tonics, Foy, who also stole Stark's girlfriend. Giovanni Ribisi plays Edward, essentially his character from Ted, except here he's been turned down from sociopath to a harmless and naive dimwit. Case in point, his girlfriend is Ruth (Sarah Silverman), a prostitute who commits all kinds of carnal acts with her clients but the running joke is that she won't go to bed with Edward because they're saving themselves for marriage like good Christians. Liam Neeson, for playing the role of famous bandit Clinch Leatherwood, gets all of ten minutes on the screen. You see all these people on the poster and wonder how this ensemble cast will get to play off one another but in the end it all falls back to MacFarlane complaining about how shitty the era he was born in is. That's the big joke. In a big, love letter to the classic westerns, MacFarlane pulls a 180 on the whole thing and instead of glorifying the age he offers nothing but derision and apathy. Does that offer some good humor? Yes it does. Can it carry an entire movie? It tries its hardest, and it even comes close, but MacFarlane falls into the third act trap most do (and he previously has) where the story ended twenty minutes ago even though the movie hasn't.  

If that plot and the character description sound a little traditional, therein lies the problem. With MacFarlane's previous movie, he decided to take a simple route and take a known, already well-versed story and wrap it around a new idea. Namely, that a couple has a rowdy friend content with the status quo who ends up straining their relationship when he's stuck in perpetual immaturity while everyone around him has grown up. Except in this case, the friend is a teddy bear magically brought to life by a childhood wish. When the teddy bear grows up, he essentially becomes Seth MacFarlane with all the good and bad things that comes with. Here's the thing; despite having Seth MacFarlane's voice and demeanor, he was still the teddy bear and not the actor. So all the raunchy jokes, even if they aren't funny on their own, had the additional level of being told through a stuffed teddy bear (an ultimate symbol of innocence who at one point simulates oral sex with a candy bar). In A Million Ways to Die in the West, Seth MacFarlane plays himself without the comforting overlay of a childhood friend. Without that additional irony, he is almost completely insufferable.

The most difficult part of keeping traditions like story and circumstance comes when you diverge from it.  The old west being what it is, contemporary dialogue doesn't match at all with the aesthetic. If it was restrained to the odd outburst, it may have held together the entire movie, but the entire movie is the joke. The 19th century townsfolk, most whom are established to be illiterate, and then castigated as simple minded morons by our main character, makes it difficult to parse the idea that everyone can speak with an above average vernacular. It makes some jokes and even entire scenes play out more like a Western version of The Flintstones, where 21st century sensibilities clash with what we can understand with hindsight to be a very backwards and ignorant era. However, instead of offering the entire town proper "smarts", MacFarlane's character by himself seems to be the only one with any intelligence. That's why he's so annoying; given Albert Stark's status in the town as its resident whipping post one could surmise that he’s at least tried to make things better and failed. Although, one could just as easily assume that his uninvited commentary could have garnered him that reputation. Usually MacFarlane gives his liberal voice to Brian, the family dog on Family Guy, to spout off on some situation with the kind of smugness reserved for those who could be deemed intellectually inferior. But here, he doesn't even grant himself fair competition, as he has with Brian. It's obvious in a world of people getting shot over squabbles that he's right, making it the worst kind of reference humor. Instead of pointing to things and going, "Hey this is like that one thing!" he's going "Hey this thing is stupid!" and expects us to laugh harder. What direct references the film does make fall on every end of the spectrum, meaning that at one point or another, everyone in the audience can at least be entertained.

MacFarlane is famous for his non- sequiturs, which are funny in their own right, but don't ever actually expand on the story. A lot of the time, that might not be a problem but here it seems like it's all that's stretching this movie to feature length. The actual plot could be settled in half the time the movie takes, with the rest being this bizarre filler that moves between MacFarlane's classic style of hit or miss; really dumb or absolutely genius. There are times during this movie that I laughed and there were times during this movie that I wondered how far some of the jokes were going to go before snapping back into the plot like a rubber band.  

This movie flings so many jokes at the audience, enough are bound to hit that it’s worth recommending. For all the stupidity that gets dragged along with the smart, it’s oddly ironic that MacFarlane's character points it all out when the most apparent is his own. It's tempting to call this a western version of Family Guy, especially when one considers just how loosely the plot fits around everything that happens in the film. But as it stands it's all harmless enough and without any real message beyond disdain for brute violence that it's not really on the same plane. It's so desperate to make you laugh that it practically removes itself of any substantiality. For all the complaints about Family Guy people have, it's a show that loves to tell people what to think when all is said and done. This movie only proves that the true western comedy classic will always be Blazing Saddles.

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