The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


A Million Ways to Die in the West

Few celebrities evoke the kind of passionate reactions that Seth MacFarlane does. Most people either seem to love him or hate him. It's not difficult to see where the love comes from. He's smart and has a firm grasp of what works for him comedically. It's not hard to see where the hate comes from, either. His humor often has an Aren't I clever? ring to it that rubs some people the wrong way. I'll admit that my exposure to MacFarlane is somewhat limited. I've never seen his show Family Guy, despite everyone I know telling me I'd love it. But Ted...well, that made me laugh, and so did his latest, A Million Ways to Die in the West, which he directed, co-wrote, and stars in.

In this comedy-western, MacFarlane plays Albert Stark, a cowardly sheep farmer. He's afraid of just about everything in the Wild West. (“Everything that isn't you is trying to kill you,” he says direly.) Albert's world is thrown into turmoil when his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him for Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), the proprietor of the town's mustache-care shop. Attempts to win her heart back are unsuccessful, leaving Albert to sing the blues to best friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and his prostitute girlfriend Ruth (Sarah Silverman). Then a gorgeous mystery woman named Anna (Charlize Theron) arrives on the scene. She befriends Albert, teaching him how to shoot a gun and helping make Louise jealous. What she leaves out is that she's married to Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), the most ruthless outlaw around. And when Clinch finds out another man is hanging out with his wife, he is not happy.

The primary joke of A Million Ways to Die in the West is that it takes place in 1882, yet the characters – especially Albert – all have very modern sensibilities. They not only speak in anachronistic dialogue, but also comment sarcastically on the difficulties of living in the Wild West. One of the most amusing running gags is the way Albert continually riffs on the hardships of the era. (The title refers to his paranoia.) That conceit may get on the nerves of some people, yet by taking this approach, the movie is parodying not only the conventions of westerns, but also the entire glamorization of the Wild West on screen. It was not, MacFarlane humorously insists, a great place in which to live. If you can abide by the joke, A Million Ways to Die in the West gets a lot of mileage from it.

Other jokes are raunchy or scatological. The best of them involves Edward's seeming acceptance of his girlfriend's profession, especially in light of the fact that they're never had sex. Politically incorrect jokes are introduced, as well, one of which pays off hilariously in a bonus end credits scene. There are also a couple of clever cameos and comic references to other westerns. A scene in which Albert is given hallucinogens by a group of Native Americans gives a subtle nod to one of the most notoriously weird/bad movies in the history of cinema. It's all quite clever, and the fact that you never really know what the film is going to toss your way is part of the fun.

As for MacFarlane as a leading man...well, like I said, he knows what works for him. Since he wrote the material, it's entirely in his own voice, and he displays total confidence in delivering it. More than anything, that's what A Million Ways to Die in the West is: a two-hour Seth MacFarlane riff on the western genre. The Wild West is - aside from Victorian England, perhaps – the last place you'd expect to find someone with his sensibility. The juxtaposition between setting/era and comedian is, as they often say, just crazy enough to work.

With the exception of the delightfully goofy Neil Patrick Harris, who has a memorably disgusting scene involving a hat, the other actors are here largely to portray archetypes from the western genre. Neeson is suitably menacing as the outlaw, while Theron displays some surprisingly good chemistry with her co-star. A big part of Theron's job is to bring some credibility to the story's third act, which involves the possibility that Albert and Anna could fall in love, and that being together might mean Albert having to face down Clinch.

Yes, A Million Ways to Die in the West attempts to throw in some sincerity with that one. Sincerity is perhaps not MacFarlane's strongest point. It all plays out somewhat predictably. Also, at 116 minutes, the film is a bit longish; paring it down to ninety might have given it a stronger punch. MacFarlane is on to something, though. With this movie and Ted, he's showing an aptitude for adapting his style of comedy for the big screen. Whereas someone like Adam Sandler appears content simply to coast by repeating the same old cheap jokes, MacFarlane is trying to surprise audiences with his off-kilter worldview. He has the potential to make a Great American Comedy someday. For now, he's two-for-two on solidly goofy romps.

( out of four)

Post-script: I don't want to end this review without mentioning that the production values in A Million Ways to Die in the West are outstanding.

A Million Ways to Die in the West is rated R for strong crude and sexual content, language throughout, some violence and drug material. The running time is 1 hour and 56 minutes.

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