Monday, June 2, 2014

A Million Ways to Die in the West Review

A Million Ways to Die in the West
Directed by Seth MacFarlane
Released in 2014

Albert Stark (Seth MacFarlane) opens the door of his frontier cabin house to find his father reading a book and mother embroidering in their usual chairs. The father looks up to his son and barks, “You’re late!” Cut back to Albert, who responds, “For what?” Cut back to the father who looks down at his book and grumbles, “Fair enough.”

That is the only joke in A Million Ways to Die in the West that works as is. It is not a feat of genius, nor is it in the least bit complex. In fact, it is funny because it is so stupidly simple: We get four shots, assembled in typical shot reverse shot fashion, leading to the punchline that life in the Old West is dull — there is nothing to do. Like any good joke, it is best told through its original form, which, here, is film. It’s better to watch it than read me describe it, you know? Nothing else in this movie can claim that passable distinction.

There are other crippling problems in A Million Ways to Die in the West, but I just cannot get over the incompetency of, if not disregard to its visuals. Why is MacFarlane, who co-wrote and directed this project, riffing on the Western anyhow? From Edwin Porter to John Ford to Sergio Leone to James Mangold (who remade 3:10 to Yuma in 2008), the genre has survived for over a century now, and throughout that time its directors have made names for themselves off the business they put on-screen: Monument Valley, Woody Strode drinking water from his hat, John Wayne walking from the right side of the frame to the left.

The credits for this film overlay old-timey font on top of sweeping shots of Southwestern rocks and desert. Clichéd, but it tries. From there, we first see Albert when he enters an empty stretch of street to face off some gunslinger looking to settle a debt. We get no spatial sense of this classic Western town, or the onlookers who turn out to be significant characters, before a static, distant shot chains us to watch Albert deliver a stand-up routine about the gunslinger’s colloquial language (In response to being called “yellow”: “I mean that’s kind of racist to our hard-working friends in the Far East, right guys?”). Louis C.K. shoots a more dynamic stand-up special on the fly than MacFarlane does with a studio behind him and a $40 million budget. And why, by the way, am I watching stand-up right now? Didn’t I pay to see a movie? The majority of the humor here could be delivered through a podcast.

This should not come as much surprise. MacFarlane has succeeded, commercially at least, as an animator totally uninterested in animation. Family Guy expresses nothing through its infinite possibilities of shapes or color: Most often a Family Guy joke consists of a guy on one side of the frame and another next to him. One delivers an overlong, repetitious pop culture reference or homophonic monologue (Stewie’s “Mama! Mami!” bit) while everything on screen, save for the mouth doing the damage, remains frozen in place. It is anti-visual comedy that looks even worse blown up on the big screen, to say nothing of the bastardization of Western iconography on display here. It explains why we have a graceless dance scene that violates Film School 101 continuity rules, or why an apparent on-location shoot leaves us with outdoor scenes that are laughably underlit. But hey I’m laughing, right?

In his review for Vulture, David Edelstein concedes, “Some of the jokes do land — maybe one in four.” I’d agree with that ratio, and take that for the backhanded praise that it is. Anything with the cranky dad is worthwhile, and when Albert reassures Indians with the “native” phrase “Mila Kunis,” MacFarlane briefly earns his stupidity. I should say that I laugh more often, and at smarter jokes I will not soon forget, when I browse Twitter for one or two minutes. I prefer humor that has some thread, narratively if not thematically, running through it, and the randomness of the delivery guarantees that most of the jokes will enter your one ear and leave out the next without visiting the brain or even the stomach before they’re gone to join the tumbleweeds.

I have not yet covered rudimentary plot summary in this review, so let me get that out of the way: Albert loses girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) because he’s not manly enough, mopes about that for a bit, and then mysterious Anna (Charlize Theron) enters town to lift his spirits. Anna married the rapey villain (Liam Neeson, in a part written against his strengths) when she was nine because she did not want to be “one of those 15-year-old spinsters” — never mind that the marriage was, in all likelihood, out of her control. Giovanni Ribisi plays a Bible-toting virgin courting a prostitute (Sarah Silverman), while Neil Patrick Harris twirls his moustache. The story is hardly there, which would be okay if this film did not lapse into laugh-free sentimentality when it strains to make a point.

That point being? Seth MacFarlane is awesome. Louise is just a bitch for not appreciating Albert’s soft-spoken goodness, and Anna wants Albert to know that he is “a real catch,” funny, handsome, the perfect man. I like to think I would have taken issue with this by default, but it is hard to ignore this nice-guys-rule-amirite woman shaming in light of the recent violence at University of California, Santa Barbara. That egregious, extratextual parallel notwithstanding, why is MacFarlane using his female characters to congratulate himself? Artists tend to be neurotic creatures, and comedians doubly so. Why, then, is the target on everyone but him? Reading those last two sentences back over, I think I just answered my own question.

Final Verdict:
1.5 Stars Out of 5

*For an entertaining tutorial on how to do visual comedy right, watch Tony Zhou’s essay on the films of Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz).

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

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