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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: A Million Ways to Die in the West

million waysA MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST (Two and a Half Stars) U. S.: Seth MacFarlane, 2014

Hate to admit it, but I laughed fairly hard at parts of Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in The West, a sexed-up comedy Western with a foul-mouthed script and few inhibitions. Forgive me, John Ford. Forgive me, Howard Hawks. Forgive me, Sergio Leone. For that matter, forgive me, Mel Brooks.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I didn’t laugh a whole lot. But  I chuckled enough to briefly rescue this tawdry but  good-tempered big-studio send-up of ‘60s-‘70s-era movie Westerns from the dung heap of  off-color humor, Wild West satire, genital jokes  and smirkingly fatuous toilet-gags  in which it seemed to be plunging (or flushing itself) beginning with the   first scenes — which include a TV ad-style  montage of Monument Valley shots (that’s Ford country, of course) and a semi-High Noon-style gunfight interrupted by a fellatio joke.
It’s another Seth MacFarlane show — a Wild West Fart Farce. But though it’s just as juvenile and just as boy’s-night-out machismo-gaggy as writer-director MacFarlane’s smasheroo comedy hit Ted — it‘s the kind of movie that might have been scripted into a Dictaphone by three drunken or stoned friends watching Rio Bravo or Once Upon a Time in the West together on a Friday night with beer and nachos — it doesn’t work as well as Ted did, perhaps because MacFarlane, who dubbed the teddy bear in Ted, this time out, has cast himself in the onscreen lead role of  Albert Stark a smart-ass sheepherder with a tacky just-folks wardrobe and a lazy stand-up delivery that suggests Johnny Carson awakening from a long snooze. Not that McFarlane can’t really play a romantic lead (any more than he can’t really host an Oscar show). It’s just that he needs direction — or more direction. Anyway, Adam Sandler could have done it better.
MacFarlane’s Albert is, in some ways, a distant relative of the Glenn Ford character in The Sheepman and (more closely) of the Bob Hope characters in The Paleface and Alias Jesse James. He is an outsider (like Ford) and  a wisecracking coward (like Hope) stuck in a dusty, dangerous, disease-ridden 1882 Western town called Old Stump, Arizona. There, he  experiences all kinds of humiliations and assaults on his manhood by the mostly mean-spirited and addle-brained Old Stumpers, including Neil Patrick Harris as the fancy-dan lady-killing mustachery entrepreneur Foy; Amanda Seyfried as Albert’s faithless and sullenly cutie-pie schoolmarm ex-girlfriend Louise, who left him for Foy and his mustaches;  Albert’s nasty daddy George (Christopher Hagen), in a sort of Walter Brennanish mean coot part; and, worst of all,  the ultra-macho Liam Neeson –wandering around murderously as the sadistic Eastwoodian Fordian Irish outlaw boss Clinch Leatherwood.
Albert has some allies. He’s given (not exactly) moral support by his best friends Ruth (Sarah Silverman), the town whore, and Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), her fiancée, the town cuckold (with whom she refuses to have sex before marriage, even after a hard day at the whorehouse). And Albert finally finds a kindred spirit, rescuing him from further ignominy and comparisons to Bob Hope, in the movie’s heroine: blonde gun slinging bombshell Anna Leatherwood, Clinch’s discontented, good-hearted and wildly sexy wife, played by the wildly sexy and apparently good-hearted Charlize Theron who steals the movie and mails it out on the 3:10 to Yuma.
Anna, while on furlough from Clinch, teaches or inspires Albert to fight, shoot, squint, stride manfully into a saloon full of gun-toting sociopaths, make love (probably) , dodge sheep-piss and survive sheep stampedes, and otherwise behave like a late-night talk-show host plopped into Old Stump, Arizona, circa 1892 and handed a six-shooter whose trigger he can barely pull, and a weenie that is (temporarily) the laughing stock of Old Stump. To cover the political bases, there are also some good Indians, with peyote, led by Wes Studi (Geronimo) as Cochise, and a Tarantinoesque cameo by Jamie Foxx, who shows up at the end to wipe out the memory of a racist shooting gallery gag. That fit’s the movie’s main source of humor of semi-humor: which is the proposition that the Old West was actually a pretty unbearable place, unless you had Charlize Theron around  to teach you how to shoot. (That’s not too far from where Sam Peckinpah took the Western in The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.)
The movie is basically a parody of Mel Brooks’ infinitely funnier 1974 Blazing Saddles, which of course, is itself a parody, and pretty heavy  on  toilet gags and fart-foolery and potty-mouth humor and genital jokes (As Cleavon Little might say: “Pardon me while I whip this out!”).  A parody of a parody? The anti-racist Blazing Saddles, which is Brooks’ choice as his funniest movie (I’d pick The Producers) is done with the same kind of unbuttoned irreverence, but with more affection than you’d expect (MacFarlane‘s picture has some too). And it had a fitfully hilarious cast, including Gene Wilder as a whimsical gunslinger, Little as a sharp-tongued black sheriff (a part intended for and partly written by Richard Pryor) and assorted other Western simpletons including a Gabby Hayes imitator, Madeline Kahn as a Marlene Dietrich-ish bar lady and Brooks himself as Mayor Fartmaster. (Look it up.). Without Blazing Saddles (and Ford and Leone and Peckinpah or Eastwood) , there might be no Million Ways to Die in the West — which some would applaud.
A Million Ways to Die — which gets its title both from an old spaghetti western (I think) and from the 1986 Hal Ashby-Lawrence Block-Jeff Bridges crime thriller 8 Million Ways to Die —  has a pretty funny cast too, though they’re not necessarily funny here, at least not all (or most) of the time. But MacFarlane knows his westerns, and he has some affection for them too. He not only starts the movie off in Monument Valley, but he has a Frankie Laine-ish title song, sung and co-written by  Alan Jackson  (Blazing Saddles actually had Laine), but he has a very good ersatz Elmer Bernstein score by Joel McNeely. And he brings on Western vet Matt Clark as a grizzled old prospector for Clinch to torment and shoot, and there are not one but three High Noon spoof showdowns,  There’s also a hoedown emceed by Bill Maher, set to  an old Stephen Foster song called “If You’ve Only Got a Mustache, with interpolated lyrics by MacFarlane and his buddies, that squeezes out a few more chuckles too. (So does the peyote dream sheep can-can number.)
MacFarlane has his part verbally, but not physically. He can’t do (or doesn’t) the Western moves of even an inept Western movie hero — or given it the reverse pizzazz spin that, say, Jim Carrey or Ricky Gervais or Ben Stiller might have mustered in the part. MacFarlane is sort of funny, but he doesn’t really generate empathy, even when the sheep urinate on him. A Million Ways to Die reminded me, mood-wise,  of a bawdily comic ‘60s-‘70s Burt Kennedy Western (like Support Your Local Sheriff) than anything by Ford or Leone. Not that the movie is really trying for Ford or Leone.
What bothers me, in the end about Ways to Die — which is at least funnier than Blended — is that it marks another opportunity to revive the big-budget Western that misfires — like The Lone Ranger, Cowboys & Aliens, or the remake of 3:10 to Yuma before it. And I’d like to see more Westerns, even more spoof Westerns.
Last week, I watched Hawks’ Red River again, with John Wayne and Brennan and Montgomery Clift,  and I was caught up once again in that great  movie’s effortless flow and tension and psychology and visual beauty, which you would think would be possible to replicate. (Maybe Spielberg should try.) In recent years, the most artistically successful Western was  probably Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff — a low-budget revisionist Western that few people saw. That film had poetry, and I think you need some of the pop poetry of the great old westerns even when you’re sending them up and showing how bad everything was. But A Million Ways to Die doesn’t even have the effortless flow and visual beauty of Blazing Saddles. Though it does have the farts and a little fellatio.



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