Loose with math6/4/2014
“A Million Ways to Die in the West”
Starring: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson
Of the hundred or so gags, jokes and one-liners that comic genius Seth MacFarlane throws at the wall over the course of his bawdy and sometimes grotesque western comedy, nearly half of them connect with a funny bone. It’s not a great ratio of wins to losses, but in the realm of Hollywood comedies it’s better than average.
Co-writer/director/actor MacFarlane’s scattershot approach could have been better applied had he built more on traditional template aspects of the Western genre toward creating a cohesive narrative foundation for his outré wisecracks to bounce. Also, tighter editing could also have made for a funnier movie. The film’s romantic storyline (circa 1882), regarding a cowboy winning back the woman who left him for another man, doesn’t begin to support its nearly two-hour running time. “Blazing Saddles,” this movie isn’t.
Still, MacFarlane’s biggest oversight lies in casting himself as the film’s comic leading character, Albert, a fish out of water if ever there was one. Arthur lives at home with his flatulent father and barely glimpsed mom. He’s an unskilled sheep farmer who dreams of leaving the frontier life behind. MacFarlane doesn’t know whether to play Arthur as a straight man or a funny guy, so he ends up doing dual-duties — a big no-no. With his manscaped eyebrows and perfectly coiffed hair, MacFarlane’s Arthur comes across as more of a mannequin-vessel for the actor’s radio-quality voice than as a jester of dubious intent. MacFarlane doesn’t bother to create a character for Arthur, instead he narrates and performs actions as a casual version of himself. Had he applied some comic make-up and invented an eccentric personality — as Neil Patrick Harris does with his show-stealing performance as Foy, a mustachioed womanizer — MacFarlane might have struck comic gold. Considering the broad range of characters MacFarlane created for his adult animated sitcom “Family Guy,” it’s surprising that he didn’t choose to do it here. Casting someone like Tom Green as Arthur could have worked, too.
The filmmaker makes yet another blunder in making Arthur’s sidekick character Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) an even paler (read weak-willed Caucasian) version of Arthur. The effect is one of redundancy rather than resonance.
Sarah Silverman does a lot with the too few scenes she’s given as Ruth, an accommodating Christian saloon-prostitute who withholds sex from her virginal boyfriend (Ribisi). Charlize Theron keeps the movie ticking as Anna, the wife of Clinch, a ruthless outlaw (played by Liam Neeson). While Clinch is off doing who-knows-what, Anna swoops in on Arthur’s freshly broken heart to teach him a few lessons.
There is no denying Seth MacFarlane’s many gifts for humor. But as a director and as an actor, he still has a few lessons to learn. CV
Cole Smithey — The Smartest Film Critic in the World — has covered every aspect of world cinema since 1997. His reviews and video essays are archived online at www.ColeSmithey.com.