“A Million Ways to Die in the West”
Home, Home on the Raunch
By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
To laugh or not to laugh? That is the question prim and proper tenderfoots will ask. Otherwise, you can add laughing to the list of “A Million Ways to die in the West.” So call me a boor. I snickered, chuckled, issued two or three bona fide guffaws and, I think, at one point let loose a full-fledged chortle.
Yet, there are also moments when some of director-cowriter Seth MacFarlane’s amalgam of high-concept satire and adolescent disgustingness falls as flat as the Western plains it so irreverently depicts. We’re just agape in disbelief.
That’s part and parcel of the double-edged sword style Mr. MacFarlane employs in his attempt to have as many moviegoers as possible howl themselves silly in an abashed confab of guilty thrills. Concurrently, the sheer wit and intelligence of the film’s sociological observations temper the ceaseless inundation of scatological obsession.
Reminiscent of the style and character Bob Hope fashioned, MacFarlane stars as the Eastern greenhorn paradoxically out of place in the Wild West. His sensibilities bespeak a later place in time. As such, he is the ever-disgruntled narrator, the gist of his gripes bemoaning the incivility of his surroundings. Exampling the frightening medical incompetence in 1882, a poor soul laments, “She had a splinter…what could you do?”
As hero/likable nerd, MacFarlane’s Albert, a sheep farmer, and not even a good one according to Louise (Amanda Seyfried), the object of his unrequited love, illustrates the confounding inexplicableness of our mating choices. The would-be gold-digger picked him because he’s nuts for her. Low self-esteem won’t let the fellow seek someone who loves him, too. Like kids at a Saturday matinee trying to save the cowboy from the villain sneaking up on him, we want to warn Albert against her artificiality.
Adding insult to injury, Louise soon gives Albert the gate and takes up with Foy, the entrepreneurial owner of the town’s successful Moustacherie. But hark! Analogous to the sound of bugles and thundering hoof beats heralding the approach of the U.S. Cavalry to the rescue, moseying into town stage right is the pulchritudinous Anna, portrayed by Charlize Theron. Though her arrival is as mysterious as she is beautiful, more perplexing is that she takes an immediate liking to our displaced and forlorn Albert.
What Albert doesn’t know is that his newfound friend and confidante, who makes it her mission to improve the sweet dude’s confidence, has a bit of baggage to sort through herself. Sad fact is, she’s unhappily married to Liam Neeson’s murderous Clinch Leatherwood, a name interchangeable with gunfighter in these here parts of the Old West. One needn’t be Zane Gray to venture that this must inevitably lead to a showdown.
Shades of Aaron Copland and variations on “The Magnificent Seven” (1960) theme, accompanied by shots of iconic landscapes, play backdrop as MacFarlane vigorously lays out his title’s thesis. One particularly outrageous riff of accidental deaths at the county fair, an acknowledged recurring phenomenon, more than proves his point.
On the bright side, part of why Louise dumps Albert is because, with “people now living to 35,” she should explore her options.
Naturally, we revel in the savvy smugness of our viewpoint…beneficiaries of penicillin, public sanitation and arguably a few less gunfights. It’s good to occupy the Earth 132 years hence, where getting gored by a bull is usually an optional thing limited to one festival in Spain. And, if we’ve the good fortune to be middle class or luckier, odds are the municipality where we pay taxes is a far cry from the grungy burg represented here, as shamefully filthy as the film’s R-rated dialogue.
Fine supporting performances further emphasize the ludicrously sorrowful humor of the place and time. Giovanni Ribisi is a pip as Edward, Albert’s best friend and cuckold extraordinaire to Sarah Silverman’s zanily played Ruth, a prostitute who flagrantly favors everyone in town but Albert with her conspicuously busy charms.
Understandably, just to keep us from becoming overly giddy with revulsion, the plot injects dramatic relief in the persona of the aforementioned Leatherwood, a sociopathic killer no disrespecting parody set west of the Pecos can omit. The Goliath to Albert’s David, a deadly serious Mr. Neeson is as formidably fearsome as Jack Palance’s Curly in “City Slickers” (1991), but without the redeeming good side.
Unleashing a Gatling gun eruption of hit and miss lampoonery, the filmmaker is forever testing the line we’d prefer comics not to cross. It is revoltingly epitomized by one scene that makes the ode to flatulence in “Blazing Saddles” (1974) seem almost Emily Post acceptable. But whether engendering accolades or repugnance, “A Million Ways to Die in the West” confirms MacFarlane’s continually edgy exploration on the comedy frontier.
“A Million Ways to die in the West,” rated R, is a Universal Pictures release directed by Seth MacFarlane and stars Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron and Liam Neeson. Running time: 116 minutes