By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 7, 2014)
Wild and woolly: Seth MacFarlane in A Million Ways to Die in the West
In his new comedy, director-writer-producer-star Seth MacFarlane seems bound and determined to prove that not only are there (as its title suggests), A Million Ways to Die in the West, but that there are also at least a million ways to tell a dick joke. Not that there isn’t an appropriate time and a place to tell dick jokes; speaking as someone who used to get paid to tell dick jokes to hostile drunks, I won’t cast the first stone. And as a believer in the credo that “nothing is sacred” in comedy, I’d be the first to defend MacFarlane’s right to sacrifice good taste for the sake of a quick yuk. That being said, you should be forewarned: This is a film with something to offend everybody.
Setting his story in 1882 Arizona, MacFarlane casts himself as a neurotic sheep farmer named Albert, who is having relationship problems. After suffering the public humiliation of watching her man worm his way out of a gunfight with a rival rancher, Albert’s beloved Louise (Amanda Seyfried) has no choice but to break up with him (after all, “this is the American West in 1882”, as Albert reminds the audience throughout the film). So while Louise sets off to “work on herself”, Albert shares his romantic woes with his sympathetic friends Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), a dim-witted cobbler, and his fiancée Ruth (Sarah Silverman), a hooker who is “saving herself” for marriage (“After all, we’re devout Christians,” Ruth tells her frustrated beau).
It wouldn’t be a self-respecting Western parody if a Bad Guy Wearing Black didn’t show up right about now. Enter evil sidewinder Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson) and his gang. We know he’s a bad hombre, because he shoots a doddering prospector on “2”, after announcing that the draw will be on the count of “3” for dibs on the poor old feller’s gold (which he was going to steal anyway). Leatherwood’s beautiful wife Anna (Charlize Theron), while also a member of the gang, hints to be of a more compassionate nature, first showing obvious disgust at what has just happened and then rescuing the prospector’s dog before her trigger-happy husband plugs it too. Yes, Theron is an Outlaw with a Heart of Gold, expressly cast to become Albert’s new love interest (MacFarlane may stoop to any level of adolescent silliness to get laughs…but he’s not stupid).
While the film is far from a genre classic (especially when compared to its obvious touchstone, Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles) MacFarlane’s strategy of “let’s keep throwing gags against the wall and see how many stick” hits the mark just enough times to keep it entertaining (you’ll laugh, but you’ll hate yourself in the morning). Like the aforementioned Brooks film, MacFarlane assigns his characters anachronistic dialog and attitudes to imbibe it with detached irony.
This is how he “gets away” with some of the more P.C.-challenged gags, like a shooting gallery game called “Runaway Slave” (“Oh, that doesn’t seem right,” Albert says with a grimace…before taking aim). Or Anna’s tale of being forced into marriage with her husband at age 9 (“It’s OK. I didn’t want to be one of those 15 year-old spinsters.”). MacFarlane isn’t below pilfering from Harold and Kumar’s playbook, with a hilarious peyote trip sequence. He even borrows that franchise’s secret weapon, Neil Patrick Harris (stealing every scene as Albert’s romantic rival). As far as Western parodies go? I’ve seen worse. And there’s something inherently funny about sheep. Baa.