I went to see A Million Ways to Die in the West, Seth McFarland’s rude take-down of the Olde West, with a friend. When we bought our tickets, it looked as though we’d have the theater to ourselves, but we grabbed some lunch, and came back, and in the meantime, it did fill up some. Mostly guys, mostly small groups of guys with that elaborately self-conscious body language that says ‘we’re here as friends; but, hey, we’re both straight!’ Two little old ladies sat directly behind us. Just to my right, though, were two teenagers, a guy and a girl, both really quite sensationally nerdy looking. The guy had this really high pitched hyena-like laugh, and clearly thought the movie was hilarious. The girl never laughed once, and kept looking over at him, like ‘seriously? You thought that was funny?’ By the end, she had developed quite a look of scientific detachment, as though her date was some kind of exotic species she was observing in the wild. A first date, I think, and likely also a last.
The movie’s like that; incredibly funny if your sense of humor tends towards the crude, and not remotely funny if you just don’t get poop jokes. I laughed a lot; my friend didn’t laugh once, and thought the movie was cretinous. Which I suppose it also sort of is.
But for those of us with an interest in American history, the movie is not uninteresting. The comic premise of the movie is simply that the old west of myth and folklore, the American Western Frontier, sucked. That it was a terrible time and place to be alive, not least because death beckoned so frequently and so ferociously. The cheapness of human life becomes a major theme in the movie; the humor is not just scatological, but specifically morbid. And every time someone is killed, the characters react, in shock and surprise, at least. Well, Seth MacFarlane does. The other characters seem astonished that he’s so bothered. So, yes, the movie does derive cheap laughs from the cheapness of human life, but it does also value human life, in its own way.
MacFarlane plays Albert, a sheep farmer, who seems to be the only character in the movie who notices how bad everything is. That’s essentially it; that’s the movie’s source of humor. All the characters just sort of take for granted how terrible life is. Albert is passionate on the subject, evangelistic. Three times in the film, he faces a duel to the death in the streets of his own town. The first time, he talks his way out of it, just completely rejecting the Code of the West, and offering to sell a couple of sheep so he can recompense the cowboy who’s angry at him. Everyone in town calls him a coward for it, which he’s not. He’s just unwilling to die if he can avoid it.
Second time he faces a duel, it’s with elaborately mustachioed Neil Patrick Harris, as the man now dating Albert’s former girlfriend, Amanda Seyfried. But before they can shoot at each other, Harris is overcome with a bout of diarrhea, leading to the movie’s grossest (and IMHO funniest) scene, one in which Harris drops trou and snatches a spectator’s ten gallon hat, which he then proceeds to, uh, fill. Okay, he poops in the guy’s cowboy hat. Sorry, sue me, I thought it was funny.
The final duel is with Liam Neeson, playing the fabled gunslinger Clinch. Clinch is married to Anna, played by Charlize Theron. She’s befriended hapless Albert, and also taught him how to shoot. And they’ve fallen in love. And Clinch wants revenge. That’s the final shootout–Albert vs. Clinch. Seth MacFarlane v. Liam Neeson. Not a battle Albert has the remotest possibility of winning. Unless aided by the spiritual insights of our Native American friends. (The terrific Cherokee actor, Wes Studi, makes a tremendous blissed-out Cochise, and walks off with all his scenes with MacFarlane).
MacFarlane is a pretty funny writer, but he’s not much of an actor, nor much of a director. Without Theron, this movie wouldn’t work at all. She saves it. She plays straight man to MacFarlane’s smart-aleck, know-it-all neurotic, and she nails every joke. I had no idea. I know she’s a fine actress; I had no idea she had comic timing that superb. She seems bemused by it all, a little superior to everyone, and therefore able to crack wise when she finally finds a man who shares her own sense of her time and place. It’s her confidence, her intelligence that are funny, because they’re so misplaced. McFarlane comments on how bad the Western frontier really is, and implied in his criticism is a sense of how much better things could be. She embodies that hope and that future, but she does it effortlessly. When she finally meets Amanda Seyfried, her romantic rival, so to speak, for MacFarlane’s attentions, you can see how little the rivalry bothers her. There’s never been a day in her life when she hasn’t been able to beat out girls like Seyfried.
Later in the movie, when it makes the mistake of finally taking its plot and story seriously, Theron is called upon to register vulnerability and fear, which she does competently enough. But it’s not very convincing, because we can’t really imagine this woman ever being actually vulnerable, or ever in much danger. (She’s a better shot than most men, for one thing, and does the pistol twirl reholster thing like a pro.)
The movie exists entirely in our era, of course. Nothing in the dialogue suggests anything remotely 19th century, and the film’s frequent cameos give the joke away. Sarah Silverman has a lot of fun playing the town prostitute, with the twist being that she’s engaged to MacFarlane’s best friend, played by Giovanni Ribisi, but that they haven’t consummated their relationship, because they’re both Christians. That may have been intended to mock the 19th century sexual double-standard; it reads more like a ‘aren’t Christians silly hypocrites?’ piece of tiresomeness. But at other times, MacFarlane uses his, and our distance, from the Olde West in smart ways. The appalling racism of 19th century America is fully deconstructed, and just at the point when you think ‘dang, these people could use a little Django Unchained in their lives,’ Jamie Foxx shows up to provide it.
I thought the movie was smart and clever and funny. The friend I saw it with thought it was nothing of the kind. Neither did the young woman sitting next to me; her entirely unprepossessing date seems to have agreed with me. Take that for what it’s worth; your mileage may vary.