2 June 2014

A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST- Review

I've been thinking about the decline of Westerns as a genre lately, so it's a bitter coincidence that A Million Ways To Die In The West turned out as it has. Ted is a film that has a lot going for it, even if the comedy doesn't quite stand up to repeat viewings, (with the exception of that astonishing party scene) so it doesn't bode well that Seth MacFarlane's second directorial effort doesn't really land on first viewing either.

MacFarlane also takes his first on-screen starring role in this one as Albert Stark, a sheep farmer who was born about a century before his time, in the middle of the darkest, dirtiest and most dangerous period in America's history. His mood isn't much improved when his girlfriend, fed up of his negativity and cowardice about the frontier, decides to dump him for someone else. Happily, he cheers up with the arrival of Anna, but his infatuation is slightly marred by the fact that her husband is the most vicious gunfighter in the territory.

Sophomore projects are sometime characterised as indulgences, when they follow a first big hit and this is a film that appears for all the world like Seth MacFarlane just really, really wanted to make a Western. The last time Universal took a punt on the genre, it was 2011's Cowboys & Aliens, so you can understand how they thought a cheaper, less straight-faced take on the genre, from one of the most popular current comic voices, would pay off for them.

The studio politics are always the least interesting part of any film, so the fact that we're starting there should tell you that this one didn't quite pan out. The really peculiar thing about it is that even though there are plenty of jokes and attempts at humour throughout this one, MacFarlane actually plays it straighter than we might expect. Although his character is constantly spouting observational comedy about the West as depicted in history, rather than taking aim at other movies in the genre, he seems to be really earnest in many regards.

Much of this manifests in the relationship between Albert and Anna. While MacFarlane has probably overestimated his own capacity as a romantic lead, Charlize Theron is genuinely good in this, in spite of an underwritten character. Anna is something of a milquetoast-y male fantasy who's shacked up with a bad guy, a snarling outlaw played by Liam Neeson, and is just looking for that one nice guy to show her what terrible decisions she's made. But Theron maximises the tougher and more likeable aspects of the character as written and is a really genuine presence in a movie that's almost slightly too bowled over by its own shaky romance.

The belly laughs are few and far between and usually at the expense of how stupid sheep can be. But there's almost a weird reluctance when the film does crack a smile. There's never a good joke when you need one, where an utterance of "fuck" or "holy shit" will do and there's a preponderance towards toilet humour that almost seems embarrassed. It's not like MacFarlane was trying to make Unforgiven, but the film feels oddly compromised in playing to his fanbase when there's evidently something more heartfelt, if not as adept, beneath the surface, in the same way as the weakest episodes of Family Guy are often the ones that reach further than they can grasp and try something dramatic.

Whether they're being funny or not, MacFarlane and Theron take centre stage, with an enviable cast of supporting players dressing up for the period too. The trouble is, they don't really get a lot to do and many of them don't have two jokes to rub together. Neil Patrick Harris is a mustachioed dandy, playing a prototype of the childish masculinity that he mastered as Barney Stinson; Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman have one joke between them, about her prolific hooker saving herself for marriage; and Neeson, who otherwise seems to have been leaning into the parodies of his tough-guy persona in his recent roles, plays it completely deadpan. They're all fine, but it feels like a bit of a waste.

A Million Ways To Die In The West looks great and boasts a stonking Western score from composer Joel McNeely, but all of the best bits are in the trailers and it's neither as funny nor as fully earnest as it wants to be. It's not fit to be mentioned in the same sentence as Blazing Saddles and it would be entirely unfair to compare the two. Seth MacFarlane evidently wants to broach new frontiers in his feature career, but in playing up the dirty jokes with such reluctance, he seems to have loaded himself down with baggage. It's not a disaster, but it's worth remembering the adage of comedy whereby the bigger and more expensive a film becomes, the funnier it ain't.

A Million Ways To Die In The West is still showing at selected cinemas nationwide.
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I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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