Wednesday, June 11, 2014

It Came From The Cineplex: A Million Ways To Die In The West

A Million Ways To Die In The West was written by Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild (producers and writers for Fox's The Family Guy). It was directed by MacFarlane, who also stars in the film, wrote lyrics for at least one of the songs and even authored a tie-in novel based on the script. 

We get it, Seth. You're a very talented person with an impressive resume. But leave a bit of room in the credits for some other names, huh?

It's your typical modern comedy, chock full of crude humor and R-rated language. Your enjoyment of it will depend on your tolerance for such things. If you like fart, poop and semen jokes, you'll be LOLing in the aisles. If you're a fan of subtle, intelligent humor, you're in for a rough time.


The Plot:
In 1882, anachronistic sheep farmer Albert Stark is dumped by his girlfriend Louise. A mysterious woman (Charlize Theron), who is secretly the wife of infamous outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), arrives in town and takes an interest in Albert. She teaches Albert how to shoot in order to win a duel between him and Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), Louise's new beau. That's pretty much it. 

• Seth MacFarlane is an accomplished voice actor, but proves here that that skill doesn't necessarily translate into live action. He's easily the weakest part of an otherwise top notch cast. In addition to his distractingly Peter Brady looks, he just doesn't have the chops to be a leading man. It might have been better if he'd stayed behind the scenes in the director's chair and let someone else-- Owen Wilson perhaps-- take over the starring role.

Speaking of the cast, Neil Patrick Harris gives it his all in a standout performance. Kudos to him for being so committed to the material that he literally craps in a hat not once, but twice.

• Many have compared the film unfavorably to Blazing Saddles, saying it falls far short of the Mel Brooks classic. To that I say, huzzah! I know this is sacrilegious, but I've never been a fan of Blazing Saddles. Especially that ending, with all the fourth-wall breaking and dance number bushwah. Give me the far superior, more coherent and better written Young Frankenstein any day.

• The film has a frustrating, meandering tone, touching briefly on idea after idea but never committing to them. For example, the whole "Deadly West" thing. We see just three or four examples of the many ways to die, but then the concept is quickly forgotten. 

Then we get a few "this century sucks" jokes (such as how there are only three songs and they're all written by Stephen Foster), and for a while it seems like that may be the film's new focus, but then that's dropped as well.

The movie would have benefitted greatly from choosing a direction and then sticking with it.

• The film has some great John Ford-style classic western cinematography. It also features a rousing and awesome score, reminiscent of those of Alfred Newman and Elmer Bernstein. It made me actually wish I could watch some old-school westerns on the big screen again.

• My favorite character in the film: hands down, it's Albert's dad, a sour, miserable and unpleasant troll of a man who looks forward to the sweet release of death. Highlight: when he places sheep manure under his son's pillow to teach him that there's no such thing as the tooth fairy. The film could have used more of him.

• Since this is a Seth MacFarlane production, naturally it includes a big song and dance number. Foy, the proprietor of the local "Mustachery," and a troupe of fellow dandies perform a show stopping number called, "If You Only Have A Mustache."

Since MacFarlane wrote everything else in the film, I naturally assumed he penned this song as well. It's such a bizarre and ridiculous (and specifically appropriate) little ditty that I was very surprised to find out it's an actual old song, written by Stephen Foster (of course-- he wrote all three songs in existence, remember?). MacFarlane did write some additional lyrics for it though (of course).

• My favorite quote from the film: When Albert says, "I'm not the hero. I'm the guy in the crowd making fun of the hero's shirt." 

I gotta admit, that line hit pretty close to home, describing me to a T.

• There's a running joke in the film about how no one ever smiles in photographs, and how insane it would be to do so. There's actually a grain of truth to this. Early daguerrotype photography required extremely long exposure times. In the 1820s, it took a whopping eight hours to take a photo! 

By the 1830s they got it down to a slightly more reasonable fifteen minutes. That's still a hell of a long time to sit rock still, so often photographers would hide supports and braces behind their subjects so they could sit motionless during the long exposure time.

By the 1840s it "only" took around sixty seconds to take a photo. Hence the movie's joke about no one ever being able to smile for that long unless they were insane.

In addition to the long exposure times, people most likely didn't smile because back then portrait photography was a huge deal. It was expensive and so most likely a once in a lifetime occurrence. People tended to take it very seriously and not smile in their photos.

• The film's loaded with cameos, including Ewan McGregor, Ryan Reynolds, Bill Maher, Patrick Stewart (voice only), Gilbert Godfried and Jamie Foxx. 

Christopher Lloyd makes a surprise appearance as Doc Brown, from the Back To The Future films. Funny, but I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't point out that the film takes place in 1882, and Doc Brown was sent back in time to 1885. Whoops!

• A word or two about that poster. Look at that thing! Each one of those faces has been Photoshopped within an inch of its life. Especially Charlize Theron. She's a beautiful woman; was it really necessary to give her such smooth, plastic-like skin? This thing's been touched up so much it qualifies as a painting.

A Million Ways To Die In The West is a mildly amusing gross out comedy that boasts an great cast and musical score, but ultimately suffers from a meandering tone and uneven humor. I give it a B-.

(OK, I don't like revising old posts, but I have to make an exception here. I have no idea why the hell I gave this cinematic turd a B- grade. At best it's a C-, and more likely deserves a D+. No idea what I was thinking when I originally graded it.)

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