“A Million Ways to Die in the West” they say? OK. Let’s tick off a few: snakes and cholera and bad guys with guns and hostile Indian tribes. But those are easy ones. Before the movie is finished, there have been some delightfully baroque, inventive and sudden new ones involving a rampaging bull, a newly delivered block of ice from back East and a camera.
As Seth MacFarlane, the vehemently anti-heroic sheep farmer in “A Million Ways” (call him a “sissy” if you must; the movie uses another word with the same final two letters) puts it about life in Arizona in 1882, “everything out here that isn’t YOU is out to kill you.”
Nicely put. That’s MacFarlane’s view of the Wild West, a kind of virulent Petri Dish of death where you barely stand a chance. As the sheep-farmer’s original wide-eyed fiancée (Amanda Seyfried) mordantly puts it when she dumps him “people are living to 35 these days” so she just wants a chance at life, ya know?
Worst of all is Clinch (Liam Neeson), the meanest and most homicidal desperado anywhere, a fellow whose greatest pleasure in life seems to be finding the most sneering and underhanded way of killing the weak and vulnerable who didn’t stand a chance of outdrawing him anyway. He humiliates them into a gunfight, tells them to draw on three and then shoots them dead at two.
What does our non-hero sissy do? Well, of course, he falls in love unwittlingly with Clinch’s 6-foot goddess wife (Charlize Theron) who is hiding out in town while her despoiling husband is off robbing, shooting, killing, raping, pillaging and finding as many other ways to get citizens to die as he can.
The black humored possibilities of perishing are much the best joke in “A Million Ways.” But they are not, by a long shot, what will distinguish this Western spoof both in the affections of its partisans or the disgust of its more sniffish enemies.
That, to be sure, is the movie’s Gold Medal competitive levels of scatology and truly atrocious taste for laughs’ sake.
It all seemed so simple to Mel Brooks and his fabled writer’s room years ago for “Blazing Saddles” (including the great Richard Pryor). When cowboys on a cattle drive eat baked beans and black coffee strong enough to keep a spoon vertical they were, before retiring under the stars, going to be passing a fair amount of gas out there on the range. That’s what Brooks and his writers reasoned.
It was high time to put it on film. It was a watershed American comedy moment. We all knew it at the time, even as we were falling off our theater chairs laughing.
Brooks, in all his innocent literalism, had opened up the bathroom door in American film comedy. It would never be closed again. And no survivor of high school or college lavatory humor could fail to know the possibilities for geometrically expanding tastelessness bound to proceed forthwith.
Which it all did with varying results. So what we have in “A Million Ways” is a self-conscious and professional effort by MacFarlane to give us all a new 21st century “Blazing Saddles.” Is it then, an equivalent to the tooterama campfire scene in “Blazing Saddles” to have a diarrhea gunfight, a scene that, quite literally made me chuckle, then laugh, and then avert my eyes when MacFarlane, in his occupational machismo, decided to prove a point by knowing exactly where to cut it off and then pushing it on for another 30 seconds. (A brave if not exactly noble occupational moment for Neil Patrick Harris.)
There’s a fair amount of that in the film which elicited quite a few chuckles and laughs from me but veritably killed (in comicspeak) the two guys sitting next to me in my row while my skepticism began to increase.
Not that I dislike the movie, only that I usually stopped laughing as I watched quite a while before the audience did.
How could I dislike a movie where the potty-mouthed town prostitute (Sarah Silverman, hilarious) refuses to consummate her relationship with her virginal fiance (Giovanni Ribisi, equally hilarious) even though she’s having the raunchiest professional sex 15 times a day?
She explains that she’s saving sex with her future husband for marriage.
Another splendid joke is that when people aren’t engaging in near-record levels of filthy talk, they’re slipping into very funny ’90s psychobabble.
Kudos to all the folks MacFarlane got to be in this just because they wanted to add a really filthy R-rated comedy to their resumes, so otherwise bereft of hilarity – Theron, as the Goddess Girlfriend, Neeson as her murderous husband Clinch, Seyfried as the faithless, wide-eyed ex-fiancée of the sheep rancher who prefers the proproprietor of the “Mustachery” and, with special oak leaf cluster, to Giovanni Ribisi, who has never used his mournful countenance to more comic effect.
The comedy pros – Silverman and Harris as the Mustachioed and seducing cuckold – are obviously having a fine time sinking as low as they can.
I can’t say I didn’t laugh a good deal. But I can’t say I loved it either.
The distinction between Brooks and MacFarlane couldn’t be simpler or more self-evident: Brooks’ “anything-for-a-laugh” aesthetic sprang from a gloriously exploratory innocence, MacFarlane’s comes from the professional puerility of our current cynical film comedy of arrested development.
We love one because it was improvisational fun. The other is business, strictly business.
“A million ways to die in the west”
Starring: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Giovanni Ribisi
Director: Seth MacFarlane
Running time: 116 minutes
Rating: R for language and very high levels of scatology, vulgarity and bad taste.
The Lowdown: A lovelorn sheep rancher falls in love with a killer’s wife in 1882 Arizona.