Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Million Ways to Die in the West

*1/2 out of ****

It's come to this: Seth MacFarlane has gathered all his resources to produce a passion project and the results are mostly terrible. How did he go from a functionally funny film like Ted to A Million Ways to Die in the West?

My guess is that his years of multi-tasking are catching up with him in a big bad way. This has already affected his TV shows, but somehow he allowed the movie that contained his first in-person lead role to be rather embarrassing. He also reinforces his reputation for being smug and arrogant by casting the gorgeous Charlize Theron to play a woman who finds him to be cute and funny. Don't try to be so modest Seth. 

The story follows an unhappy sheep farmer who's down on his luck, lost his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) to a rich man (Neil Patrick Harris) and hates the period of history in which he lives (The movie is on the right comic track when he refers to his town's way of life as though he has a 21st century perspective). Out of determination to win his girl back, he meets a mysterious woman, played by Theron, who is good with a gun and teaches him how to shoot after he foolishly challenges the rich man to a duel. During this process, he will realize that Charlize is hotter than Amanda. He also has a best friend, played by Giovanni Ribisi, who is platonically dating a local brothel whore played by Sarah Silverman

The movie's mockery of westerns may seem like an attempt at making a new Blazing Saddles, but it made me think of Woody Allen's Love and Death, which lampooned Russian literature. Just like Love and Death, the protagonist is a coward, thrown into an unwanted conflict and must prove himself to a woman who isn't interested in him. The production of that particular film was also quite devoted to an authentic historical tone, which made its silliness funnier.

The difference is that Allen played his role in a more self-deprecating manner, avoided any hint of sincerity and he did his homework. In A Million Ways MacFarlane constantly treats his leading-man status like a self-esteem booster, allows the seriousness of a love interest (Theron) and her villain gunslinger husband (Liam Neeson) to get in the way of the comedy and there is barely a reference to any classic western film.

MacFarlane is great for pop-cultural jokes and I don't know why they're so seldom in this film. Is he trying to prove that he can make good comedy without many of them? No Oregon Trail jokes? He's also great at musical numbers and there's only one, which is okay, but he's done way better.

The movie has a few laughs, yes, but anyone watching this should be able to detect the wasted potential. The beautiful cinematography of Monument Valley, the Elmer Bernstein/Aaron Copland-style score by Joel McNeely and the whole production of this film seems like a great setup where MacFarlane and his writers failed to come through with a decent punchline. 

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