A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Seth MacFarlane

Stars: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Giovanni Ribisi, Amanda Seyfried, Neil Patrick Harris, Liam Neeson, Sarah Silverman, Christopher Hagen, Wes Studi, Matt Clark, Rex Linn, Alex Burstein, Dennis Haskins, Christopher Lloyd, Gilbert Gottfried, Ewan McGregor, Ryan Reynolds, John Michael Higgins.

There may well be a million different ways to die in the west but there are not a million laughs to be found in this comic western from Seth MacFarlane, best known as the creator of animated tv series Family Guy, and the genius behind the surprise hit Ted, a raunchy comedy about a potty mouthed teddy bear.

The film has been written by MacFarlane and his regular collaborators Alex Sulkin and Wellesley Wild (Ted, Family Guy, etc). MacFarlane parodies many of the familiar cliches of the genre including the bar room brawl, tough talking gun-slinging outlaws, and the showdown in the middle of dusty main street. This irreverent take on the western genre is not as funny or as anarchic as Mel Brook’s 1974 classic spoof Blazing Saddles. Unlike Brooks, who had superb comic instincts, MacFarlane tends to undercut much of the humour here with a lack of subtlety, and he has a habit of underscoring the jokes in bold strokes in case we missed it the first time.

We rarely see MacFarlane on screen as he does lots of voice over work for his tv series, but here he is front and centre as Albert Stark, a self-deprecating, fast talking, insecure and cowardly sheep farmer who lives in the remote town of Old Stump. Stark is the most cowardly man in the frontier since Bob Hope ventured into the territories in The Paleface. He hates the frontier and makes plenty of snide observations about how dangerous it is. But when the film opens he talks his way out of a gunfight and is quickly dumped by his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried), the local school mistress who flies into the arms of the oily and foppish Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), who is the richest man in town.

Albert consoles himself with his best friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), the shoemaker whose girl friend is Ruth (Sarah Silverman), who puts in busy days at the local brothel where she services up to ten men a day, on a slow day. Edward and Ruth are engaged, but ironically she wants to wait until they are married until she has sex with him.

Then into town rides the beautiful and sassy Anne (Charlize Theron, having fun in an undemanding role). Unbeknownst to Albert, she is the wife of notorious outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), and is just biding her time until he shows up. After he rescues her from a bar room brawl, she takes a shine to the decent Albert, and a friendship develops. They are also drawn together by a mutual dislike of the harsh and inhospitable west. She willingly plays a role in trying to make Louise jealous. She also teaches him how to use a gun and helps him find his courage. And when Clinch rides into town determined to kill the man who has been seen flirting with his wife, Albert finally has to face up to his fears.

MacFarlane has certainly assembled a strong cast to flesh out the characters. MacFarlane himself brings a boyish quality to his performance. Theron has rarely made a comedy in her career, and while she is largely cast against type here she brings a sassy quality to her performance and adds a touch of class to the absurdity of the material. Neeson brings a nice sense of menace and danger to his performance as the notorious outlaw Clinch (his name is an obvious reference to the legendary Clint Eastwood). Ribisi provides plenty of comic relief as the naive and virginal Edward, and the relationship between him and Ruth is one of the strongest in the film and provides some of the biggest laughs. And Harris hams it up nicely as the oily Foy, and plays the character like a 19th century version of his Barney Stinson character from the popular sitcom How I Met Your Mother.

The film has been gorgeously shot by Michael Barrett (Ted, Bedtime Stories, etc), who uses the wide open vistas and spectacular backdrop of Monument Valley, the favourite and familiar setting of many of John Ford’s classic westerns, to great effect. Indeed, the opening credits sequence uses Joel McNeely’s rousing score and the backdrop of Monument Valley to evoke the atmosphere of those classic westerns of the 60s, when the genre ruled the big screen and heighten our expectations for something special. Unfortunately, A Million Ways To Die In The West doesn’t quite deliver on those expectations, but it is still a lot of fun.

There are a lot more hits than misses here, which is unusual for most of the alleged comedies released so far this year. However, some of the deliberately anachronistic humour misfires, and MacFarlane tends to be a bit self-indulgent at times with some self-referential cultural touchstones. The film seems a little overlong, and there are some moments that seem repetitive. There is a wonderful running gag featuring Albert’s sheep, who keep turning up in unexpected places. There are plenty of double entendres, gross out gags, crude scatological humour and puerile toilet humour. There are also plenty of clever cameos, including an uncredited Ewan McGregor and Ryan Reynolds, and one surprise that had the preview audience gasping and applauding the audacity of it.

★★★☆

 

Comments

  1. Not sure why Seth thought it was necessary to make this when the greatest western spoof, nay greatest comedy, already exists in Blazing Saddles.

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