“A Million Ways To Die in the West” Movie Review (no spoilers)

Million-Ways-To-Die-in-The-West

 

I have to say that for the first 20 minutes of this movie, I hated it. In fact, I found it completely unwatchable, and nearly walked away. I am a huge Family Guy fan, and a fan of Seth MacFarlane’s humor in general. However, I thought the entire opening of this movie was fatally flawed. As it turns out, it wasn’t dead on arrival after all. 

The first 20 minutes or so featured very little exposition, like you’d find in a traditional movie. There was very little in the way of a backstory, and characters were poorly connected and ostensibly shallow devices, rather than legitimate characters. Instead of building the story naturally, Seth MacFarlane’s character, Albert, launches into a diatribe about how brutally awful and backward the Old West is, and how there are countless ways to die. Naturally, throughout the course of the movie, we see many gruesome deaths, with varying levels of effectiveness and comical efficacy. Apart from robbing the viewer of valuable exposition, this schtick about the West was contrived, snarky, and superior, and it felt like MacFarlane was trying too hard. I was okay with the commentary being anachronistic and improbable. After all, Mel Brooks did similar gags in films like History of the World, Part I. The difference being, that Brooks’ commentary was always the causal result of motivated action. MacFarlane’s rant is unmotivated, and seemingly comes out of nowhere. Why does Albert feel it necessary to barrage his friends with how tragic their circumstances are, when unprovoked and unnecessary? Even though some of the complaints are mildly funny, the disjointed context and lack of discernible objective makes the whole gimmick tiresome and unsuccessful. Furthermore, the business actually makes Albert an unsympathetic character, as he comes across as superior, bitter, patronizing, and petty. As the uncontested protagonist of this movie, it was perilous to begin the film with such a severe and alienating device. I began to remember that although I liked Family Guy, I did not like American Dad, and for many of the same reasons. I decided that although I liked FG, I didn’t necessarily like Seth MacFarlane. This is the kind of visceral reaction I was having to the movie. To be fair, the routine might have worked as a cutaway on Family Guy, but as an incessant running monologue of one guy delivered to poor, mute, and unwitting listeners, it just didn’t work for me.

The significant problem with starting the movie with such a consciously clever rant is that the audience isn’t allowed the chance to get to know the character and his history, but rather, gets exposed to a self-indulgent laundry list of Western snubs. The language is glib and unbelievable. Therefore, the character is one-dimensional, and fails to earn the sympathy and trust of the audience. Perhaps he’ll turn his scorn and derision on them. People want to identify with characters, and see their humanity — their strengths and flaws and triumphs and failures. All I saw was a wise-cracking smart aleck who held himself higher than those he knew, and where and when he was. He didn’t seem like a three-dimensional character, but rather, a caricature. I would guess that MacFarlane thought he was being clever, and bringing his audience into the action through wit and carefully constructed observations. Sadly, he was doing just the opposite, and managed to alienate all but the stoutest few. My guess is that the majority of those who ultimately disliked this film, were put-off in those first few minutes, and perhaps never saw their way back into the movie. The die was cast, and first impressions can be bitter pills to swallow. Despite my strong urge to turn the film off, I determined that my affection for most of MacFarlane’s work compelled me to give it a chance, and trudge on. My patience paid off.

Whereas the whole beginning of the movie was fraught with contrived and unmotivated action and dialogue, the last 2/3 of the film delivered a much more nuanced and heartfelt story. I must say that everything changed as soon as Charlize Theron entered the movie. I thought she grounded the film in an impressive way. Suddenly, I found MacFarlane’s humor sweet, sarcastic, and sincere, and his character became real to me.  They had such a comfortable and moving relationship, and I credit Theron’s skills as an actor with pulling MacFarlane back to earth, and challenging his dialogue in meaningful ways. I thought their romance was one of the most compelling I’ve seen in a comedy of this kind. The relationship was tender and full, and what began as friendship, blossomed into a deeper kind of love and affection. In cadence with Theron’s arrival, we start to receive more exposition, and modest backstories are provided. As the treacherous villain, Clinch, Liam Neeson is undoubtedly a rather shallow caricature of a bad guy, but it parodies the typical ‘man in black’ and vilifies him as it should. His dark and static villainy are nicely contrasted with Theron’s Anna, who is surprisingly deep, complex, and emotionally resonant. We learn she was married to Clinch at the tender age of nine. This arranged marriage is clearly ridiculous, but consistent with the humorous observations that girls marry young, and everyone dies young too.  To me, the humor was that much funnier when I believed in the humanity of the characters. Observations were suddenly delivered meaningfully, and were character-driven, not the witty disses of a bad stand-up comic. 

Overall, the acting was solid, and I was honestly very impressed with the sincerity of Seth MacFarlane, and his ability to go to emotionally vulnerable places. Theron was remarkable throughout. As I stated above, her presence allowed MacFarlane the comfort to explore a wide and varied range of emotions, and to use his comedic skills in more effective and purposeful ways. Neeson was fine as the evil gunslinger Clinch, and it probably worked better for the sake of the film and its structure for Clinch to be a little flat and unquestionably archetypal. I did feel that Sarah Silverman and the enviously talented Giovanni Ribisi were woefully underused. Neil Patrick Harris was a delight, and played his character with foppish bravado. Amanda Seyfried was not given much to work with, but she was adequate in the role of Albert’s ex-love interest. I have to admit that I often find Seyfried okay in her roles, but she also leaves me a bit cold and unsatisfied. Perhaps it’s due to her often being cast as disagreeable or snobby and high-maintenance females. In that respect, she was quite perfectly cast in this role.

As for the production quality, it was quite impressive. I thought the locations and cinematography was gorgeous, and the costumes perfectly captured time, setting, status, and character. The music was felt, while not being overly obtrusive or burdensome. Despite its glaring flaws early on, the script improved as the film unfolded, and ended up being quite successfully structured and crafted. Although many of the jokes did not land properly, the humor settled down and became far richer and effective with time. The movie was far too long at nearly two hours, but the end was richly rewarding. I ended up walking away from this movie really satisfied. It started out rough, but it ended up being a charming, warm and funny film. This is not a film I probably would have recommended people go see in the theatre, but it’s perfectly suited for rental or streaming online. If nothing else, it’s worth it for the chemistry between Theron and MacFarlane!

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