All Quiet on the Western Laughs
One of the most difficult genres in movie making these days is the western. Back in the day, they were some of the most popular movies in the cinema with acting icons like John Wayne and Charlton Heston and Clint Eastwood kicking injun and outlaw ass and taking names.
Somewhere along the way, the western has gotten into some tough times. Kevin Costner tries to make the occasional nostalgia pic, but ends up with a critically acclaimed, three-hour long, boring mess. Studios will also try to gather a young cast of Teen Beat fodder to attract young girls who want a cowboy, and young dudes who want to be the young girls’ cowboys.
But they rarely, if ever, work. They are most assuredly a box office failure at the very least. Few times there might be some measure of success, but it’s not a result of the western influence in the project. Case in point, and not the last time this movie will be mentioned, Back to the Future III. Whatever success that movie enjoyed was not because it was a “western.” Or the movie Serenity. Or Django Unchained. Or Rango. I know I thought of other examples last week, but they escape me right now.
Despite the daunting task of crafting a western in today’s Hollywood, Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane went and made one anyway. Of course, his quirky tumbleweed opus, A Million Ways to Die in the West, wouldn’t be something of his doing if it didn’t have a comedic spin. Not only did McFarlane set out to do a western, but he thought a comedy western would be a good idea. And he was mostly right. Mostly.
The plot honestly doesn’t matter, because a comedy like this is about making you laugh. When there are sheep dick jokes, the plot is just a canvas on which to paint in as many crude efforts as you can. The basic story, however, is a sheep herder needs to become a gunfighter in the terrible old west. There are bandits, there is romance, and there are, yes, Indians doing some kind of drug to aid our hero on a vision quest. If this movie was written/directed by anybody other than Seth McFarlane, it would have been a pretty sad affair. But he’s the real key in giving this any amount of success, despite also being the cause of its few shortcomings.
Whatever project he does, McFarlane has a real talent at seeming like one of your circle of friends. It’s kind of like how the question is asked what presidential candidate you could see yourself having a beer with. McFarlane is much like Joss Whedon in that he’s basically a nerd who happens to be famous. And in McFarlane’s case, he’s an 80’s nerd to boot. I would be surprised to hear if you could get through an episode of any of his animated shows (Family Guy, American Dad, The Cleveland Show) without a random 80’s reference.
Circling back to seeing Doc Brown and the DeLorean in this flick, anyone who knows McFarlane saw this coming from 88 mph away. I almost wonder if he did it because he knew fans of his would expect it. While I don’t mind this particular cameo, it’s a good thing the movie stays away from too many more of them. Unfortunately for McFarlane, the randomness he’s known for is also the weakest element in this particular project.
In his last movie, Ted, such things could be gotten away with. After all, aside from a main character who was an immature everyman, the flick was about a stuffed teddy bear that came to life. Suspension of disbelief wasn’t too much of a stretch. In A Million Ways, however, the strength in every joke that lands its mark is that it makes sense. The best humor in this movie happens when talking about the time period in today’s voice. Remarks about the hostility of the old west and the fragility of the humans in it seem best delivered with the sarcasm of today’s hindsight and knowledge. A great example would be the barbaric, non-sensical medical practices of the day, where a Blue Jay pecking a wound seems a perfectly good cure for what ails your skull.
While the best lines are genre/period specific, the snarky throwaway lines also often prove much better than the larger gags. Too bad there aren’t more of them, because the movie does suffer a tad from the whole “all the funny stuff is in the preview” syndrome. The first half contains just about all the jokes you’ve already seen, giving the latter part of the movie the unenviable job of tying up the plot. While the last half hour lacks the laughs of other portions of the movie, I will give McFarlane this- I still enjoyed it. It might not be laugh-a-minute, but it’s not bad. Whatever his weaknesses, and there aren’t many, McFarlane knows how to tell a story.
The other thing I’ve enjoyed about his feature films so far have been the casts. There are some players who have jumped from one to another, most notably Giovanni Ribisi who gives his Ted character a dancing nod in this one. Alex Borstein makes a live action appearance here, normally taking on animated form in Family Guy (she voices Lois Griffen). Patrick Stewart lends his voice to this after being the narrator in Ted, and having a recurring role on American Dad. Newcomers round out a cast that shows just how much being a genuine person attracts even more genuine people. Liam Neeson, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman, and others have the same everyday persona as their writer/director. And Charlize Theron. Charlize Theron. I might learn the guitar and serenade her someday.
I kind of hope McFarlane keeps his projects varied. How awesome would a Star Trek-ish comedy be in his hands? If he could go back and make Galaxy Quest, we’d have an even more perfect movie. The guy shows range and the willingness to take risks. Not only was A Million Ways a comedy western, but it was a hard R-rated comedy western. Something tells me McFarlane didn’t think about the risks, he just made the movie he wanted to make. While it might not be his best, it sure ain’t bad.
Final Verdict- See it, but wait for DVD or a premium channel broadcast (don’t wait for regular cable, cause there’s way too many f-bombs for it to be enjoyable with all the censoring).