Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A Million Ways To Die in the West (2014) **

Albert: Seth McFarlane
Anna: Charlize Theron
Louise: Amanda Seyfried
Clinch: Liam Neeson
Edward: Giovanni Ribisi
Foy: Neil Patrick Harris
Ruth: Sarah Silverman

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Seth McFarlane. Written by McFarlane & Alec Sulkin & Wellesley Wild. Running time: 116 min. Rated R (for strong crude and sexual content, language throughout, some violence and drug material).

I read a misguided article about acting recently that took the stance that many Oscar nominated performances thought to be great were somehow holding back and playing it safe. A much wiser friend of mine, and excellent actor in his own right, debunked this fool’s theories with a simple truth about the art of acting. He essentially said that what is required for a good performance is that the performer find some sort of truth in the material. This is really the case with all art. Including the entire effort of a film. Even good slapstick comedy is anchored in truth.

So after seeing Seth McFarlane’s new western spoof “A Million Ways To Die in the West”, I was left with the question, why does this movie fall so flat when his previous film “Ted” was so bitingly hilarious? There are some really great notions about westerns to be found here. McFarlane is obviously a huge fan of westerns, as evidenced by his opening credit sequence, which explores all the landscape vistas of Monument Valley made popular by all the great westerns made by John Ford and others. He approaches his subject matter with the same passion and zeal as he did “Ted” and his weekly animated television series “Family Guy”, but it never quite works here.

The failure is quite simple. This time around McFarlane never connects any of his jokes to any reality or truth for his character or setting. He’s made some keen observations about life on the Western Frontier circa 1882. The entire comedic premise behind the movie is that by today’s standards the West was an awful place to exist. His main character, Albert (portrayed by McFarlane himself), seems to have this modern insight into just how crude and poorly developed our society was back then. Albert constantly lists off horrible and even mundane ways in which people die in the west. That part is actually funny.

The plot, however, deals entirely within western clich├ęs. It involves Albert’s girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried), who has found more enticing boyfriend fare in Foy, a local merchant who is capitalizing on the moustache market so prominent in the West. Albert has no moustache. This leads to a rather humorous musical number that reaches McFarlane’s typical comedic potential.

Meanwhile, an outlaw played by Liam Neeson plots nefariously. His goals seem fairly insignificant to McFarlane and his co-writers, but while he’s off robbing a train or something, he has his wife lay low in Albert’s home town of Old Stump, named so because of the old stump found on its main street, ho-ho! Of course, the wife (Charlize Theron) regrets her coupling with an outlaw and is ready for a ”nice guy.” So there are no surprises as to where the romantic side of this adventure will lead. And, despite all the jokes about how many ways there are to die in the west, the big bad meany is pretty much the only person who dispatches anyone in pretty much the standard western fashion. There is one surprising death that gets a laugh, but that’s not enough to carry through on what appears to be McFarlane’s primary joke about life in the West.

What McFarlane appears to be striving for here is a new “Blazing Saddles” with its bathroom humor and misplaced modern mentality juxtaposed against the stereotypes of life in the Old West perpetuated by Hollywood. The primary difference is that Mel Brooks was able to find some real issues on which to comment, such as racism, the power of the corporate dollar over individuals. He even targets Hollywood directly. McFarlane, on the other hand seems content to make his fart jokes without anything greater behind them than the fart itself. This results in some wonderful jokes being wasted in an empty screenplay. He knows the jokes are funny; and we know they could be funny, if only he were aware of the reason they should be funny. 

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