A Million Ways to Die in the West -- a Film Review
What begins auspiciously as a clear homage-parody to a bajillion Westerns -- from the credit typeface to the panning shots of the Badlands to the saturated russets and burnished golds of the Arizona desert, to the honky tonk wooden outpost town with its SALOON and HOTEL signs giving you the thumbs-up on where swinging-door action will occur as soon as the bad guys arrive (Liam Neeson as gunslinger Clinch) -- loses a tranche of its obvious demographic by being riddled with dirty words and unnecessary sexual imagery and situations. MacFarlane’s Ted (2012) made $549 million in a global gold rush.
Quoth our companion: “Well, suppose it’s because they figured all the movies today supply that same kind of thing…”
Maybe. To which we say: ‘Tis a pity there’s so much whorishness in a film that comes near to rivaling Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. There are, to be sure, guaranteed whoops in the endless recourse to farts, massive dysentery, genitalia-mockery, complaisant town strumpets who keep themselves ‘pure for their true loves’ (“We are, after all, Christians,” they say to comfort each other on not having sex when the female of the chaste couple services 10-15 men “on a slow day”), and inadvertent instantaneous death from accidents, falling ice, town fairs, poor menu choices, and drunken brawls. Or powerful intestinal gas.
It is leavened by the luminous Annie Oakley-like Charlize Theron (as Anna), Amanda Seyfried (playing opportunistic spoiled-brat love interest, Louise, who doesn’t develop much as a character), and the innocence-surprised sheep farmer Seth MacFarlane, as Albert. Albert tries winning back Louise for most of the film. The signature hilarity is there, certainly, but pocked with endless riffs on sex acts, bodily functions, excretory dioramas, and distasteful references re-emphasized in case you missed a noxious reference the first time.
It is, absent the mucky vocabulary, exhilarating to see good guys chasing or being chased by bad guys on horseback. To see the square dances that constituted fun back in the day. To see how political correctness was not even a glint in the eyeteeth of the drably dressed townsfolk. And of course the title must have been the first thing to hit MacFarlane in the backside: In his faux-innocent open-faced way, he curses the multitudes of ways in which life in the Olde West sucked (pardon the locution more suited to late-night) -- and proceeds to show, in one incident after another, how people died haphazardly in all manner of stench-y ways in bar brawls, contests for a nickel, home-cooking incidents, gross-out animal encounters, gunfights, and the like. Sudden, unexpected, often hilarious. Some unbilled celeb cameos roused roars from the preview audience.
It is also enough time of not having had Westerns (but for Clint Eastwood’s splendid oeuvre) that this new entry in the old genre is plum ripe on its own merits. Enough with the monsters. Enough with the CGI stuff.
Neil Patrick Harris, who has made it abundantly known that he is not straight, plays Foy, the proprietor of a “Moustache parlour,” the arch near-villain rich-guy swain of Amanda Seyfried. Was that deliberate -- casting against type? Much is made of the dominating penury of all the cowhands, bar habitués, ranch-hands, townspeople, and even the gang of bandits headed by Liam Neeson. Giovanni Ribisi, playing Edward, a sweet-faced schmendrik [nebbish] courting the town trollop, occupies a place of distinction in all comparable Westerns we can recall. He is a friend of the protagonist played by MacFarlane. Can anyone recall seeing the advent of an actual personal friend in any of these white hat/black hat dry-gulch steeplechases?
There are several imaginative dream sequences, sheep dancing, men cavorting, Toonerville chug-chug interludes with the Clinch gang pursuing our hero, a shockingly good equestrian. Surprising song sequences also provide high-kick moments, and the luscious Theron/moll Anna becomes the questionable woman with that heart of gold and the double-handed pistol proficiency of the ideal mate for the days and nights of purple sagebrush purgatory that MacFarlane envisions to have been our recent American past.
There is a sidesplitting scene with Native Americans sitting around sheep-owner MacFarlane on the pyre, ready to be roasted “for White Man’s a--hole actions.” Chieftain Cochise (c. 1805–June 8, 1874) is played by Wes Studi (who looks a lot like his historical eponym); which would make the tribe we are seeing Apache. Or to be wholly pedantic, leader of the Chihuicahui local group of the Chokonen ("central" or "real" Chiricahua). The scene humanizes the Apache, but at the cost of any wild surmise of how they actually conducted business around the late-night bonfire.
But listen quick. At one point, while the men are speaking in some Indian tongue, Albert makes a negative comment in Apache, which, if you listen hard, you realize is “Mila Kunis.”
No small main dish of the film’s amusement might be the extremely contemporary verbiage and mindset of the proceedings, it’s everyday psychobabble and spinning of current bugaboos in the mouths of people who never conceived of “working on themselves” or enviro mentality or bowing out of relationships with the ever-handy “honey, it’s me, not you…”
Just don’t take the tots.
Part of Hollywood's optics and dollar schematics is, one knows, to appeal to as wide a band of age-cohorts as possible. While this film does the legwork for adults and the tolerant, not for the young or the moviegoer who prefers scatology-free entertainment. Since a movie is much more than its opening weeks, or its instant box office, this film will no doubt prove, like its John (“Duke”) Wayne and Hopalong Cassidy forebears, a flowing wellspring of celluloid, and the money from rerun franchises, rentals, global markets and even oater nostalgia buffs will no question flow like a river at flash-flood, for years.
People are finite. Films are infinite in their undeniable longevity; given enough time, one worries, the soap-mouth-warranting sludge-tongue of this comedy might become acceptable to the not-yet-adult. Not a prospect to be wished.