Seth MacFarland is a writer, director, and voice-over specialist known to us mostly as the man behind the movie “Ted” and the TV show “Family Guy.” He and his writing collaborators seem to have done some reading about the American West as they prepared the screenplay for “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” the new feature film he directed and in which he appears as the central character Albert.
They also seem to have watched some old western movies, and every imaginable cliché of the genre is included in “A Million.” But the historical facts that sneak into this not-particularly historically accurate film are especially interesting. For one thing, the writers learned that carefully sculpted western mustaches required expensive lotions and waxes. For another, they discovered that nineteenth century photographs required such long exposures that few sitters were willing to hold smiles for the length of the shutter time.
Those are kind of interesting facts. Whether or not they are decent material for jokes is another question. One would think outcast sheep ranchers, escapes from saddle-thugs on racing locomotives, capture and enlightenment by supernaturally-attuned Indians, prostitution upstairs above a saloon, and gunfights in the dust of the main street were all pretty good subjects for joking about.
Mel Brooks thought so.
Funny thing is, MacFarland and his pals give us all of those elements in “A Million” but play them as if they were potentially exciting elements in a straight western, not as if they were silly and over-familiar. Instead the new comedy in the movie is supposed to come from the history-based observation that life on the desert was short and brutish.
From the very beginning of the picture, Albert is telling his buddy Edward (Giovanni Ribbisi) that death is always just before them. A large block of ice (another detail the writers seem to have read about) falls and kills a man, and the cringing Albert says, “That went south so fast.” But we saw that joke in the preview.
In fact, we saw most of the movie’s new jokes in trailers that have been running in the twelve-plex for months. Neal Patrick Harris in a handle-bar mustache leads a phalanx of hoe-downers toward the camera. Hooker Sarah Silverman shows herself to her fiancee Edward, and he isn’t sure he doesn’t agree with nineteenth century art critic John Ruskin about the female form.
The previews also include parts of a stroll Albert makes with Anna (Charlize Theron) down the midway of the local fair. He tells her that people die at the fair every year, and we see some likely fatal accidents. Anna has come to town just as Albert’s sweetheart Louise (Amanda Seyfried, whose big eyes become the subject of a joke or two) has deserted him for a go with the wealthier Harris.
Albert doesn’t know that Anna is the wife of gunfighter and marauder Clinch (Liam Neesom) who has sent her to Old Stump to await a rendezvous. But unlike her hubby, Anna is a good person who likes Albert and tries to help him defeat Harris’s character in a gunfight. Then she tries to help Albert escape her sadistic and maybe jealous husband.
So the story is fairly straight. The jokes are either based on history or, more likely, have to do with sex or elimination, or have punch lines that are profanities. The ancient Hollywood western cliches aren’t treated as cliches. And the contemporary cliches of coarse comedy are relied on as sure laugh getters.
Then we have one cliché that makes me very uncomfortable. Wes Studi plays the chief of a tribe that captures Albert, feeds him a hallucinogen, and then gives him metaphoric spiritual advice. Depicting Native Americans as pure-hearted mystics is racism. This is one cliché we would all certainly be better off avoiding.
So “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is sometimes quite coarse, and it stereotypes a racial minority. Given the competition for your movie ticket dollars, this isn’t enough to disqualify it as an entertainment option. In fact, though MacFarland’s new movie isn’t all that funny, it is fairly entertaining.
Watch out, though. There were forty minutes of previews and ads between the stated show time and the beginning of the movie. And, as if to answer that over-long run-up, the story includes a conclusion that lingers for almost half an hour after we know pretty much how things will work out. Show up late, and be prepared for a climax that may seem to drag on.