The late 1800s were surely some of the wildest years in that fabled Wild West of song and story; film-makers of every ilk have turned their hands to mining the enormous potential, but until Blazing Saddles the satiric comedy possibilities were mostly unexplored. Now Seth MacFarlane of Ted fame has brought us his version of the Western comedy/spoof in A Million Ways to Die in the West.
Aw, maybe not quite a million, since guns and bullets feature prominently as the main way to die in MacFarlane’s take on the Old West. Certainly there is no lack of ammo for the guns that everyone has to wear, and most are crack shots, with a few notable exceptions. Seth himself, as Albert Stark the nerdly sheep rancher, can’t hit the broad side of a barn, as they say. But he’s up for learning the art when a beautiful stranger comes to town.
Back story: Stark is no hero type; in fact he loses the love of his life, Louise, played by Amanda Seyfried, when he wimps out of a gunfight. Louise sets her sights on the slick shyster Foy – he of the waxed and perfectly curled mustache – done to a tee by Neil Patrick Harris as the leering object of Seyfried’s attentions. The sheepherder tries to win her back with no luck at all, but then a lovely blond mystery woman appears in town and everything changes.
The blond sharp-shooter is Charlize Theron as Anna, and she’s arguably the best part of the movie, carrying off her role with a straight face and perfect timing. Sadly, for this movie anyway, she’s much more effective in her drama/comic role than her co-star MacFarlane, whose idea for the film was a good one but seems to fall far short of what he presumably intended as director/actor.
At any rate, Anna also happens to be the estranged wife of the baddest renegade in this little slice of 1880s Wild West, a mean trigger-happy dude who goes around kicking open saloon bat-wings and announcing with taciturn menace that “somebody here is going to die”, and you better believe it. After all there really are a lot of possible ways to die, including but certainly not limited to death by farting.
The bad guy is also one of the better parts, with Liam Neeson playing Clinch Leatherwood as the name would imply, whatever that might be. There’s also plenty of R-rated humor and it is funny, with a few really bad gags and lines that are galaxies away from politically correct and not much improved by the distance. A Million Ways to Die in the West professes to be very funny and very dirty, but some of the humor is dirtier – in a cringe- inducing way – than it is funny.
With all that said, this is overall a pretty funny flick, and most people will find it hard not to laugh, even if there’s a groan of disgust mixed in with laughter in a lot of spots. Those watching closely will see quite a few unlisted cameo appearances from big name actors, and the attention to vintage detail in the costume department is quite delightful, as is the breathtaking Monument Valley scenery that serves as background.
Opening in the U.S. and U.K. on 30 May, A Million Ways to Die in the West is not likely to slay all competition for Best Picture, and it sure wouldn’t be condoned by the likes of Gene Autry or even John Wayne. The film was never intended to be anything but a broadly satiric comedy, and that it is – just not what one might call a ‘blazing’ success.