Thursday, May 29, 2014

A Million Ways to Die in the West

A Million Ways to Die in the West
Dir. Seth MacFarlane

2 out of 5

The American frontier was, as the opening voiceover to A Million Ways to Die in the West notes, a "hard place for hard men."  Albert Stark (Seth MacFarlane), a sheep farmer in 1880s Arizona Territory, is not one of those men.  He likes to pass the time by launching into rants about the poor quality of life in his hometown, Old Stump, where lapses in security, the rule of law, and even basic hygiene can result in fatal consequences.  A dry obsession with imminent death is the thin connective tissue in MacFarlane's follow-up to Ted, a high-concept comedy that aspires to be one part Blazing Saddles and one part City Slickers.  With MacFarlane's neurotic, snarky screen presence front and center it's definitely closer to the latter, if the concept of arrested adulthood had existed in the 19th century.  In one sense, you pity Albert - he's a fish out of water who's never even seen the ocean.  He's also a big, whiny baby, and the downfall of a momentarily engaging and frequently misfiring film.

MacFarlane's script, penned with his Family Guy colleagues Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, has a promising start with breezy riffs on western stereotypes.  There are Albert's flinty parents, who cuss out their underachieving son without ever leaving their rocking chairs.  There's a chipper prostitute (Sarah Silverman) whose positive attitude is never punctured by the lewd acts she performs on a daily basis; her virginal paramour (Giovanni Ribisi) is even more sweetly naive.  And there's the irritating dandy (Neil Patrick Harris) whose mustachioed virility catches the eye of Albert's shallow ex-girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried).

In an unexpected twist, A Million Ways to Die suddenly turns into one of those flimsy, chauvinistic '80s comedies about a guy pining for a girl he's better off without.  When Anna (Charlize Theron), the unhappy wife of an infamous outlaw (Liam Neeson), is forced by her husband to lay low in Old Stump, she inexplicably makes Albert her pet project, teaching him how to shoot a gun, accompanying him to the town's social events, and listening to his self-pitying prattle in an effort to boost his confidence.  They get high together.  They crack jokes about their genitalia.  Anna is the perfect "guys' girl," and her chemistry with Albert is not unlike that between two best bros, with unconvincing sexual tension.

When it's not indulging a clich├ęd romantic fantasy, A Million Ways to Die in the West gets by on irreverent comedy and the committed performances of its stellar supporting cast.  But MacFarlane remains dedicated to flogging his most uninspired material, receiving diminishing returns from already paper-thin punchlines.  The funniest bits are invariably throwaway gags much like the ones that made him a TV mogul.  The film also has a muddled comedic identity, getting off on anachronistic observations (when did people start smiling in photographs?) but also trying to force every conceivable western trope into the story.  (Native Americans appear, only briefly, as the facilitators of Albert's dopey CGI drug hallucinations.)  With half-baked ideas sprinkled into a basic genre template, it's a shame that so much effort went into making this movie look like a real western, complete with stunning on-location shots of wide-open skies and towering rock formations.  It's nearly enough to understand why Albert doesn't move on from Old Stump despite his unending protestations.  Sadly, originality is the real casualty on the frontier in this formulaic, fitfully entertaining comedy.

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