Film Review: A Million Ways to Die in the West – A Million Laughs: Go Seth, Young Man!

For those who enjoy genre spoofs and gross out humor, Seth MacFarlane’s R-rated A Million Ways to Die in the West serves up a heaping pile of humor with a million mirthful movie moments.  Others who prefer their comedy to be cerebral and refined, rather than raucous, may wish to hang up their spurs and sit this dizzy dosey doe out.  While those minus any sense of humor at all should just stay at the old homestead, instead.

Although your critic also enjoys the dry wit of a Cole Porter or Noel Coward lyric, he belongs in the former camp and laughed (what’s left of) his head off.  Around 40 years ago, when Mel Brooks unleashed Blazing Saddles on an unsuspecting public, scenes such as Mongo’s horse-punching and the campfire farting vignette were considered to be irreverent and outré.  In a similar way, in our post-Brooks world, MacFarlane pushes the envelope of our more jaded 21st century sensibilities with scatological humor and jokes in bad taste (and that surely taste badly) that have rarely been seen on the big screen in a major Hollywood production.  In terms of standards per onscreen behavior, this is MacFarlane’s Family Guy and American Dad animated TV series on cinematic steroids, raising crudity to the level of high art.  (Although Million holds back when it comes to breasts and female genitalia, which Sarah Silverman as the droll hooker Ruth merely describes, whereas male genitalia is more graphically exposed.  Why the shyness, Seth?)

As the auteur of Million (MacFarlane directed, co-wrote and stars — although, unlike Brooks, he did not punch the holes in the sides of the celluloid), he takes deadly aim at the genre conventions of the Western.  Indeed, for our continent’s indigenous peoples, the Westward ho! expansion from sea to not so shining seas was nothing short of a cataclysmic, genocidal catastrophe that is now also turning into an ecological nightmare.  Underlying MacFarlane’s critique of the Western lies an awareness of this unadorned history.

Like numerous John Ford classics, part of Million was shot on location in Monument Valley.  Mac the Knife satirically deconstructs and debunks cowboy clichés, stressing that in stark contrast to silver screen hagiography, the Wild West was an awful place to find one’s self in.  There is an especially delicious joke about the “selfishness” of American Indians, and at the very end (warning — don’t leave before all the end credits have rolled!) whitey gets his comeuppance for caricaturing newly free slaves at a county fair.

Like many a genre spoof Million walks a fine line in between making fun of the Western’s archetypes and tried and true traits.  Sometimes the mockery devolves into becoming the very thing which the iconoclastic artiste has been poking fun at.  Such may be the case vis-à-vis the relationship between Albert (MacFarlane) and Anna (Charlize Theron, who may be the horse opera’s most fetching, winsome gunslinger since Jane Fonda rode the purple sage in 1965’s similarly hilarious Cat Ballou, which co-starred Oscar winning Lee Marvin and what is, hoofs down, screendom’s most screamingly funny steed ever).

Million is at its satirical best when it lampoons the mythos of gunslinging.  As gunman Clinch Leatherwood, Liam Neeson does a good job of harpooning not only the long-ballyhooed celluloid stereotype of the High Noon-type triggerman, but of the action hero/tough guy roles the actor who once played Oskar Schindler has been, lamentably, cast in of late.  Although it’s hard to assess the psychological impact of and quantify the romanticizing of gunplay in our culture, who knows how many Westerns that pathetic, demented mass murderer in Santa Barbara and others of his shooting spree ilk have seen since birth?

MacFarlane’s screen romp is also at its finest when depicting Native Americans, Hollywood’s perennial “noble savages.”  Million portrays them as savage, then as noble — enlightened heathens who, through psychedelics lead Albert on an Oz-like trip wherein he attains clarity, if not a taste of enlightenment.  Wes Studi — who played Magua in 1992’s The Last of the Mohicans, the title character in 1992’s Geronimo: An American Legend and the Na’vi chief in 2009’s Avatar — is, as usual, great, portraying Cochise.  For my wampum Studi steals the show (his niece DeLanna Studi is also a gifted thespian).

Neil Patrick Harris also co-stars as Foy, a cross between a city slicker and gunslinger who competes with Albert for the affections of Louise (played by Amanda Seyfried, who, unlike Theron, is not, for some reason, very attractive here).  Look for comic Bill Maher in a clever cameo.

As for Million’s plot, it’s very secondary to the boundless laughs for those tickled pink by sheep penises, hats full of excrement and the like.  Be forewarned — A Million Ways to Die in the West is for those amused by vulgar boundary-stretching and sheer goofiness.  In other words, your humble scribe loved it and recommends it to those for whom this type of rude, crude comedy is their cup of piss — uh, I mean “tea.”  To paraphrase Horace Greeley, it made this reviewer say: “Go Seth, young man!”

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