Tuesday, 3 June 2014

A Million Ways to Die in the West

Toilet Humour, Racism and Sheep - a story by Seth MacFarlane. 

In Arizona 1882, Albert Stark (Seth MacFarlane), a cowardly sheep farmer, loses his relationship with his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) after he pulls out of a gun duel. However, when Anna (Charlize Theron) arrives in town, the two become firm friends, with Albert soon beginning to understand his true courage and purpose in life. But Anna has more secrets than she lets on, mainly the fact that she is married to the most infamous outlaw in the West, Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson).

Seth MacFarlane is a pretty divisive writer, and in more ways than one. Whilst some love his comedic style, others loathe it. But, his jokes themselves also seem to hit as much as they miss; something that has never been more evident than it is here. This is a great idea, and on paper it works. Seth MacFarlane + an ensemble cast + a Western setting and style = one hell of a comedy. Unfortunately, the result isn't quite as good as you'd hoped. In fact, "good" is a bit of a stretch here. It's great fun, and the jokes that hit are pretty funny, but this mostly feels like a missed opportunity.

The main issue here is the film's runtime. 116 minutes its pretty ambitious for any comedy, but when it works, it works. Here, however, it doesn't. There aren't enough jokes to sustain almost a two hour period, and the story seems to give up throughout the entire middle act, which feels more like a shoddily edited montage than a feature film. By the time we arrive at the film's final act, which features one of the more questionable hallucinations you'll see on screens this year (there are singing sheep and all), you can't help but wonder how we got there. But, you don't go to a Seth MacFarlane film expecting an thoughtful narrative, you go for the jokes; which makes it even more disappointing that they can't sustain the running time either. There are small bursts of brilliance scattered throughout, it's just a shame they're so heavily outweighed by the dull patches.

Seth MacFarlane's comedic style is an interesting one. He doesn't rely on slapstick like many comedies seem to lean towards these days, and in that sense, his perspective is rather refreshing. But, if you had to give his comedic style a name, it'd probably end up something alongs the lines of "Toilet Humour and Racism". In fact I wouldn't be surprised if that was the title of his next film. In these respects, sometimes he gets it spot on. His political awareness is pretty solid, and a Western is a perfectly safe setting to bring in his reliable use of racist jokes. In my review for Ted, I stated that fart jokes are very rarely funny, and MacFarlane attempts them again here, to similarly weak results. Maybe in McFarlane's dream world, he can show people farting on an endless loop for a flawless comedic cycle. But, in the world we actually live in, it's time he moved on a bit.

But, as negative as this review is sounding, I can't deny that I was pleasantly surprised by this film. It's received a pretty wide negative response so far, and I sort of want to question that. I get that this isn't everyone's cup of tea, but there are some great lines here. MacFarlane again demonstrates that he's got an eye for intertextual references; there are a shed load of cameos here, and every last one of them works. There are some great pieces of social commentary too; while two kids run past with a stick, Albert and his friend talk about how "playing games numbs the mind". All of the comparisons MacFarlane draws between 1882 and today's world are so honest, and I can't help but wish there were more of them. The humour is patchy, but when it works, it's great. If it weren't for The Lego Movie, this could be a contender for the most fun film of year. It also helps that some of this film is beautifully shot; the production and costume design is utterly brilliant, and I hope this hasn't been ignored by other viewers of this film.

A Million Ways to Die in the West is about as scattershot as films can come. I enjoyed it, but I wanted to like it so much more. MacFarlane is a talented writer, with a style of comedy that others can't seem to replicate. I mean, perhaps they don't want to, but either way his stuff is pretty unique. If you enjoy Family Guy, you'll love this. If you found Ted amusing, you'll find a lot to like here. I remember stating in my Ted review that I wished MacFarlane would grow up a bit, and produce more intellectual, sophisticated humour. This won't be the last feature he makes, so hopefully he still has time to mature with his writing, because it sure as hell hasn't happened yet. This film is far from perfect, but it's not the diabolical mess others have so quickly labelled it, either. It's silly, it's annoying, and it isn't quite as funny as you'd want it to be, but it's also pretty clever in terms of it's social awareness and cameos (the Back to the Future scene was fantastic). For the moments where this film works, you'll have a great time. Just don't expect too much.

To Summarise: It's overlong and suffers from relatively patchy humour and poor plotting, but A Million Ways to Die in the West is just about funny, smart and unique enough to make this silly idea work.

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