Monday, June 9, 2014

A Million and One Problems but This Ain't One

Seth MacFarlane never really gets the respect he deserves.

Oh, don't mistake me, because if you've seen any of his work, you know it's entirely his own fault. If you can stand watching TV shows Family Guy or American Dad! for more than a few minutes at a time, it's obvious he's a smart, clever entertainer. In terms of wordplay, he can blow his contemporaries away with ease, and he his timing is so smooth and perfect that he will not only catch you off guard with his witty repartee, but do so in the best, most efficient way possible. But he torpedoes his own talent in two ways. One, he's at times excessively vulgar. A byproduct of the "extreme gross-out" comedy format that became big at end of the 1990's, MacFarlane lives and dies on his ability to deliver whatever shock value that the FOX network won't censor on his TV shows. Sometimes it works... and more often than not he goes a little too far, depicting gags that go on too long, or are so vile as to disgust. Naturally, this is only my opinion; your mileage may vary. The second complaint about the filmmaker is that he has one joke: the nostalgic non-sequitor accompanied by immediate visual recreation. Now, while I wouldn't say it's his ONLY joke, he used it so often on Family Guy that it's become his signature style, and since he definitely doesn't do anything in moderation, it gets old. Again, my opinion.
"Get on with it!"
So when MacFarlane's directorial debut Ted came out in 2012, what came as the biggest shock was that, from a first-time live-action filmmaker whose TV shows were VERY hit-or-miss, Ted's gags were mostly hits. The humor was creative, the storytelling was solid, and the material was approachable and understandable while also undeniably being MacFarlane's usual brand of adult-only entertainment. A Million Ways to Die in the West, however, is more like the director's previous work. That is, it tries really hard to force gags that don't work and winks for the camera to make sure you got it. If Ted was an example of MacFarlane successfully refraining from his too-frequently used vices, then this is his movie where he revels in them. Appearing live on the big screen for the first time, MacFarlane plays a Albert Stark, a cowardly sheep farmer in the 1882 who regularly bemoans the danger of living in the Wild West, where everything from nature to outlaws to sickness is out to get you. This thinking drives away the love of his life Louise (Amanda Seyfried), and as she was the only happy thing in Albert's life, he tries to get her back from her new douchebag boyfriend Foy (a hilarious Neil Patrick Harris). Along the way he befriends Anna, a tough-as-nails female gunslinger (Charlize Theron), pisses off a notorious outlaw (Liam Neeson) and take a drug trip with a Native American tribe. Truly, this is a story for the ages.
The moustache is the real star of the show.
There is a lot wrong with MacFarlane's second feature, but the most obvious is that the story is so... ordinary. The themes are readily apparent, most of them drawn from the usual Western cliches. The only think that makes A Million Ways unique is the treatment of Albert, who readily admits that he is not a hero, but "the guy in the crowd making fun of the hero's shirt." It's a refreshing change of pace to not see a John Wayne or a Wayne-wannabe taking the top spotlight in this kind of movie. However, there's a definite message here for the "nice guy" (that they don't finish last if they try), and while that's kind of unique for a Western setting, we've seen it a million times in teen comedies, and it's no fresher for the change of locale. And MacFarlane's attack on the romanticizing of the old west comes out as not timeless, but out-of-time; the average movie-going public doesn't care about the Western genre, so making fun of it isn't so much a whimsical nostalgic homage as it is kicking someone while they're down.
Obviously, Theron's on a new diet...
It doesn't help that the characters are a bit of a bore as well, with most actors not nearly used to their best effect. MacFarlane could almost be called the exception, but for the fact that a man known for doing funny voices never once alters his speech, even as a joke. It's like having Michael Winslow in a movie and NOT having him do his human beatbox routine. In fact, the actor/director's performance highlights the holes in his acting talent, as he's just not the lead actor type. He's got some charisma, but his screen presence is just off, since he doesn't know how to actually work in front of a camera after years of work behind it and doing voice-over work. At least Harris knows how to mug for the camera effectively, adapting well to MacFarlane's brand of storytelling. He really is the film's best performer, even if he's not given nearly as much to do. It's not that the rest of the actors are BAD, but that they're just written poorly and have little to do, playing nothing but stereotypes. Seyfried is a classic "bitchy ex-girlfriend". Neeson is the deadly outlaw with no sense of humor (he doesn't even get good dialogue). Giovanni Ribisi is the "mild-mannered best friend". Sarah Silverman is Ribisi's golden-hearted, dim-witted girlfriend (points off for Silverman's limp performance, but I'll give the character credit for being a prostitute who wants to wait for sex with her boyfriend until marriage because she's Christian. That's clever.). Theron is the "cool girl friend (not girlfriend)", and Theron doesn't so much play her as show up to speak her lines. And no, I don't think the Academy Award-winning actress was doing such a good job that I couldn't tell the difference. At least she seems to be having fun, which is a trait most of the cast seem to be sharing. Again, Neeson appears to be the exception, because he's playing the villain so straight. A bit TOO straight, in face, considering this production.
Neeson: a straight shot in a winding narrative.
Thankfully, the dialogue and humor isn't bad, and redeems some of the film's more lifeless efforts. MacFarlane (who teamed up on the script with his Ted co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild) delves full into his chosen topic, the variety of deaths in the American West, and has a lot of fun playing around with the concept. And when he focuses his the story here and not on the primary plot, THAT is when A Million Ways lives up to its premise, with Albert ranting on about the dozens of diseases rampant in the area (dysentery is referred to as "the black $#!&"), to the occasional off-handed comments about the hostility of local Native Americans ("...we're basically sharing the country with them 50/50.") to the numerous surprising cameos that I will not spoil, because they're just too perfect. Finally, MacFarlane has always had a good feel when it came to music, and he and composer Joel McNeely do a great job scoring this picture, mixing classic western music with more modernistic parody songs like "If You've Only Got a Moustache" and title track "A Million Ways to Die", for which you will want to sit through the closing credits to hear. This is where we get the upper level of MacFarlane's creativity. It's just too bad that the main story needed some work, as if the director had put as much effort into the plot that as he did making it anachronistic and edgy and fun, this could have been a great movie.
I know, I can't believe I'm giving this a decent review, either.
So no, it's no Ted, but A Million Ways to Die in the West isn't that bad, either. Does MacFarlane have the chops to be a lead actor? Absolutely not. Does he need a filter on occasion? Yes, the man never found a barrier he wouldn't cross just to say that he did. Is the script surprisingly and incredibly lazy? Yes, but the actors do try to have fun with it anyway. There are enough laughs to get you through the surprisingly long (nearly two hours, unheard of for a modern comedy) run time, and they hit more often than they miss. Heck, even when they miss, they aren't as bad as say... the worst bits from his Oscar hosting performance. There's no denying that those who do not think much of MacFarlane's brand will do best to stay away, but that's not to say that you have to be a fan to "get" this movie. It's harmless fun, albeit of a decidedly adult nature. The biggest complaint I have is that MacFarlane definitely half-assed this production, and that's the main reason it doesn't compare to even his best televised work. He relies too much on his usual schtick, and that's just not good enough to succeed at this level. Maybe one day he'll live up to his true potential (as he got close with Ted) but for now he'll just have to settle for not getting that respect a little bit longer.

1 comment:

Richard John Marcej said...

I agree, had the film stuck to it's premise, the million ways to die, the idea that the west of 1880's were a shitty time to survive, then yes, it would have worked. But I gotta disagree with you on the rest. I'm a fan of Seth's work, "Family Guy" is hilarious (IMO) but this film..... wow. Is it dull. Seth seems to want to make a hard edged comedy version of Don Knotts "Shakiest Gun In The West." It's a weird dichotomy that never works. And good lord.... Hollywood. PLEASE, no more comedies that last more than 90 minutes!!! It's an old expression, but "Soul is the Brevity of Wit" has stood true all these years for a reason.There were only two bits in the entire film that made me actually laugh out loud. The Christopher Lloyd cameo (and the trailer gave that away) and Gilbert Godfried as Lincoln. The rest.... a crashing bore.