A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST

A Million Ways

By R. David

Viewed May 30, 2014

A talented cast and high-concept comedy ambition come together in “A Million Ways to Die In the West”, Seth MacFarlane’s affectionate send-up of Western genre tropes.  It’s a bold and curious film in that one can’t help but wonder just what the audience is for a film like this.  Moviegoers in their golden years who may actually have fond memories of the films MacFarlane is paying homage to aren’t likely to be sold by the its vulgar and violent trailer; while younger audiences whose funny bone might be tickled by the bawdy bathroom humor and graphic sight gags aren’t likely to grasp or fully appreciate the overall concept.  But MacFarlane would be nowhere if not for taking risks on odd and potentially off-putting premises (see “Family Guy” and “Ted”).  And funny is funny regardless of the box it’s placed in.  If MacFarlane can find the hilarity in a film about a walking, talking, pot-smoking teddy bear, surely he can find it in a Wild West farce, right?

The answer, it turns out, is a bit complicated.  On the one hand, “A Million Ways…” gets just about everything right on a technical level.  The production design, cinematography and score especially recall the sprawling, dusty oaters of Hollywood yore.  The cast is game and seems to be having a great time with such farcical material (typically serious actors like Liam Neeson and Charlize Therone in particular seem to be enjoying themselves).  As fans of “Family Guy” know, MacFarlane knows how to milk a sight gag and the film, written by MacFarlane with his frequent collaborator Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, has a good amount of clever lines and observational humor, both raunchy and cartoonishly violent.  But “A Million Ways…” is never quite as funny as you’d like it to be.  I smiled a lot, but the big laughs are few and far between, and the film also has trouble sustaining momentum.  Going back in time initially feels like a breath of fresh air for a comedy, but after a while, returning to the same jokes about the Wild West starts to wear thin.  The film simply doesn’t have enough up its sleeve to remain compelling and funny for its entire running time.  As a result, it feels padded and overly long.

Part of the problem is the thin plot, which is too shopworn to inspire much audience investment.  MacFarlane plays Albert, a worrywart sheep-farmer who detests the dangers of the primitive Wild West.  His girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him for the local mustache groomer (Neil Patrick Harris), and Albert contemplates leaving town.  But when he accidentally saves the life of a beautiful stranger named Anna (Therone) and the two seem to be a perfect match, he thinks he’s finally found happiness.  What Albert doesn’t know is that Anna is married to one of the most feared gunslingers in the West (Neeson), and he’s coming to town to find his wife.

As I said, pretty standard stuff.  While any send-up is bound to be representative of its target’s conventions, whoever is doing the sending-up still needs to fashion a compelling narrative; but the plot here feels completely beside the point, as if MacFarlanbe just needed the most basic of stories to attach all his wacky little gags to.  If he had more of them – or more of them worked – this might have been OK; but again, the writers simply don’t have the comedy gold they think they do.  Though, some of it works very well.  The overall gimmick of the dangers that run rampant in the Wild West – with characters being killed randomly and in a bevy of ridiculous and often hilariously extreme ways – is presented with the sort of surprising, giddy, cut-away precision MacFarlane relies so heavily on in “Family Guy”.  The other commentary on the Old West – men’s manliness is judged by the size of their mustache, nobody smiles in photographs, the slightest offense results in bar fights and shootouts, Albert’s self-awareness of the ridiculous science and social expectations of the time – is also generally funny stuff,.  But MacFarlane returns to all of these jokes again and again.  The first few times a gag is repeated, the repetition itself gets a laugh.  After a while though, the constant call backs just start to feel tired.  For instance, Sarah Silverman plays a prostitute who claims to be a good Christian so she won’t have sex with her daffy fiancé (Giovanni Ribisi) until they’re married; but she has no problem with her occupation or graphically discussing the details of her work.  Initially, this is the sort of ridiculous, vulgar joke MacFarlane excels at.  But spend too much time with these characters making the same joke over and over again and it loses its luster.

Through all the unevenness here though, “A Million Ways to Die In the West” has three things keeping it watchable and entertaining despite its flaws.  First, it is often undeniably funny.  Even though it spins its wheels considerably, there is usually a clever sight gag or surprising cutaway not far ahead. Second, as mentioned, the look, tone, photography and music are all simply exquisite – not just an ace parody, but a wonderfully made film on a technical level by any measure.  Third, and perhaps most beneficial, is the cast.  MacFarlane (who also directs) has the face of a 20-something despite being in his 40s and the voice of a radio announcer.  He might not make for a genius comedic performer or a captivating leading man, but he is rather perfect as the sarcastic, exasperated voice of logic and reason amongst all the insanity.  He and Therone are tasked with playing straight-man to all the over the top buffoonery surrounding them and they have clear comedic chemistry even if their romantic chemistry is lacking.  There are moments where it is clear he is legitimately cracking her up, and she’s not just acting.  To that end, there is also obvious improve work to much of the dialog which lends some scenes a bit of edge and energy.  Also, who better to ring-up to play a smarmy, show tune-singing, mustache-twirling ham than Niel Patrick Harris; and who better to riff on the alpha male badass than Liam Neeson?

There is much to admire about “A Million Ways to Die In the West”; it’s just a shame it’s not a bit tighter and more inspired.  It’s the kind of movie that feels like they came up with a concept and cast, but tried to throw together a script as they went along.  But that it’s as enjoyable as it is is a testament to the winsome cast and MacFarlane’s considerable gift for mining (if over-milking) scatological humor.

2½ Stars (Out of 4)

LOVELACE

Lovelace-after-credits-large

By R. David

Published August 9, 2013

For a real-life tale rife with so many harrowing moments, the biopic “Lovelace” sure fails to make an impression.  There was no lack of messy, ugly, or flat-out horrible circumstances “Deep Throat” star Linda Lovelace had to endure on her way to the adult-film stardom and notoriety she never wanted or asked for, mostly at the hands of her abusive, coke-head husband, Chuck Traynor.  But “Lovelace” settles for being an all too familiar biopic, moving headlong through all the salacious bullet points of Lovelace’s story with indifferent precision.  This film feels more like a report being submitted for grading than something its creators were truly passionate about.

That isn’t necessarily true of the performances, however.  Amanda Seyfried attacks the role of Lovelace with respectful aplomb.  She obviously has a great amount of admiration and empathy for the tragic icon.  Seyfried disappears convincingly into the role.  But “respectful” and “empathetic” aren’t generally words used when describing great drama.  Despite some powerful moments, “Lovelace” never seems to be able to commit to going the distance required to rattle its audience.  It dips its toe in the water, but then runs back to shore.

The exception here is Peter Sarsgaard’s portrayal of Chuck.  His glassy-eyed, simmering intensity and eerie calm is “Lovelace’s” most effective asset.  Laid back and charmingly cool at first, Chuck meets young Linda Boreman at a roller-disco in the early 1970s and immediately sweeps her off her feet.  Linda has dreams of being an actress that she is not allowed to pursue under the over-protective eye of her religious-conservative mother (an unrecognizable, but excellent Sharron Stone) and aloof father (Robert Patrick, nicely underplaying it).  But Chuck is her ticket to independence.  Unfortunately, he proves to be a selfish, greedy and manipulative monster who discovers Linda’s hidden “talent” (see: the title of her infamous film) and immediately sets his sights on ways he can exploit it for his own financially gain – first forcing her into prostitution, then into porn, and finally allowing her to be raped by a group of men in exchange for a bag of coke.

Sounds intense, right?  Those moments are – or at least have the potential to be.  But the film simply moves from beat to beat, with a matter-of-fact attitude that is almost at odds with the whirlwind excitement, chaos and trauma supposedly being dissected here.  Whenever events threaten to get too graphic, too ugly, too intense; directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (“The Celluloid Closet”) cut to the next scene.  Being safe does Lovelace’s tale and this film no favors.

Epstein and Friedman’s best and most interesting idea is their framing device.  The movie is essentially cut in two halves.  The first  is a “Boogie Nights”-esque, disco music-infused ramp-up to Lovelace’s induction into the high life.  But just as she is on stage at a screening of “Deep Throat” (after it has already become a crossover hit and cultural touchstone), bowing to an adoring room full of fans – including Hugh Hefner (James Franco, because of the rule that James Franco must appear in every other film now), the film skips ahead six years to Lovelace taking a polygraph.  She then recounts her tale again, only this time all the blanks are filled in.  We see that what we assumed was Lovelace becoming the star she always wanted to be was in reality Chuck manipulating her every move.  The star-studded high times at Hollywood parties and movie premieres in the film’s first half are now accompanied by behind-the-scenes glimpses of the abuse, threats and nightmares that followed.  It’s an interesting and novel approach to storytelling.  Unfortunately, ‘glimpses’ of the harrowing behind-the-curtain drama is all the film is interested in sharing.

The great performances notwithstanding, “Lovelace” more often than not simply fails to connect on a visceral level.  The film has its moments, but it never breaks the biopic mold.  It lacks the infectious energy of something like “Boogie Nights”, but even as a conventional biopic it fails to connect all the dots; leaving out large swaths of its subject’s tale and legacy (such as her post-“Deep Throat” activism and the aftermath of her tell-all novel).  Considering the talent involved here and truly fascinating subject, it’s a shame “Lovelace” seems to have no concern for the details.

2 stars out of 4.