A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

Posted on September 10, 2014

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Synopsis

Albert (Seth MacFarlane) is a sheep farmer in Old Stump, AZ, circa 1882. He hates living in the West, especially after his girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him. One night a fight breaks out in the saloon, and Albert saves a stranger from having a combatant fall on her. He and Anna (Charlize Theron) get to talking, and become friends. When Louise’s new boyfriend, Foy (Neil Patrick Harris) challenges Albert to a gunfight, Anna teaches him how to shoot. Which is fortunate, because her jealous husband, Clinch (Liam Neeson), is coming to town…

Short Version

Wildly hilarious when it’s not jarring and off-putting.

 

Long Version

So, yeah, Mel Brooks compared A Million Ways to Die in the West favorably to his film, Blazing Saddles. His point was that Blazing Saddles really pushed the envelope in 1974, and forty years later it seems pretty tame. That’s a good thing. It means that we, as a culture, have progressed. When Mel Brooks said that Seth MacFarlane made a Western in the spirit of Blazing Saddles, but pushing the envelope even further, that seemed like an endorsement to me.

I disagree with Mel Brooks, but I’ll go into that in a minute. Before I do, I want to say that everyone in the movie is great. It seemed like they were all in the spirit of the film, and often were genuinely having fun. Editing is a key component of any comedy, and I thought the editing was solid throughout this film.

Okay, that was the nice part. Now for my three main complaints with A Million Ways, in comparison with Blazing Saddles.

MacFarlane and his writing partners make a lot of jokes that don’t go anywhere. They’re not connected to anything else. Two that stay in my memory include the barn dance and Albert’s parents.

The barn dance is introduced by a stand-up comedian (cameo: Bill Maher), which seemed anachronistic (more on anachronisms later). Then there’s a big musical dance number, which is great for Neil Patrick Harris, but A Million Ways isn’t a musical. It’s a way to mock Albert’s lack of a mustache in song. I get that Seth MacFarlane is trying to make a joke about big mustaches being common in the Old West, but mustaches aren’t a common enough facial accoutrement for it to hit home.

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Albert’s parents are waiting to die. His mother is silent and his father is cantankerous, if I’m being kind – and homicidal if I’m not. There’s no exploration of this. We don’t know why they’re that way, or how Albert turned out to be such a nice guy considering how those people must have raised him. They’re just there to set up some jokes, and that’s it. No offense to the actors, but those characters could have been written out of the movie without any appreciable loss.

Blazing Saddles has very few instances where jokes go nowhere. For example, the hangman (Boris, played by Robert Ridgely) outside Hedley Lamarr’s (Harvey Korman) office wears Medieval garb. That’s never explained, but it’s also so minor that we don’t care. Why is everyone in town named Johnson? We don’t know, but it hints that they’re all related and possibly inbred.

tmb_1774_480No one ever comments on Sheriff Bart’s (Cleavon Little) asides to the audience, but he does so to defuse things like his invention of the Candygram. We accept it because he’s smoothing over other elements.

alex-karras-clevon-little-blazing-saddlesMy second issue is with anachronisms. Right from the start, Albert speaks in a very modern way. In his second scene, before Louise breaks up with him, Louise calls him out on something he says. He brushes it off – which is a signal for how the rest of the film will treat anachronisms. They just blow them off.

That’s unfortunate, because some of them are particularly jarring. Ruth (Sarah Silverman) has a particularly modern take on discussing sex acts, which is in sharp contrast to her insistence that she is a Christian. Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), her boyfriend, is deeply shy and awkward about sex, which seems odd in farming country where he must have seen herd animals mating. His insistence on his Christian identity makes more sense than Ruth’s, but his take on sex is a sharp (and unexplained) contrast to hers.

a-million-ways-to-die-in-the-west-7The sad thing is, they could have explained all of it by saying they learned it from Doc Brown. Christopher Lloyd has a cameo as the iconic Doctor Emmett Brown, from the Back to the Future movies. The movie could have referenced “Doc Brown” as the source of unusual phrasings and anachronistic ideas, building to a final reveal of who Doc Brown is. Instead, they blow off the anachronisms and throw away the cameo opportunity.

10259047_799004526777577_4602056615121357711_o[1]Blazing Saddles is rife with anachronisms. From the hangman’s costume to Hedley Lamarr’s name, from the appearance of Count Basie (and his orchestra) to the bikers in the lineup to join Lamarr’s gang. Let’s not forget the moment the whole movie crashes through a wall and into modern-day Hollywood! However, the anachronisms are not used as one-off jokes. They enhance the joke that is being made at the time. They make the joke clear, or exaggerate it, so we laugh harder.

7Finally, let’s talk about racism. A Million Ways uses racism to make jokes. American Indians have no language of their own (“Mila Kunis” means “fine”). They act like “magical Negroes,” dark-skinned people who spiritually awaken white folks. Then there is the shooting gallery at the fair, where all the targets are runaway slaves. There’s even a scene at the town dance where Albert and Anna make fun of the bustle of Anna’s dress. According to the movie, it tricks “black men” into finding her attractive, but they’re disappointed when it turns out to be all bustle. There’s no empathy or compassion in the jokes, and they play no part in the overall narrative. They’re just there.

Blazing Saddles made racist jokes. Hell, the whole plot was a big racist joke about the fallout of naming a black man sheriff of an Old West town. Once they committed to acknowledging the racial inequalities of the Old West, they ran with it.

slim_pickens-harvey_korman“Hey! Where all the white women at?” “Alright, we’ll take the niggers and the chinks, but no Irish!” Mel Brooks and his writing partners (who included Richard Pryor) made the white Christian majority look like idiots, while Sheriff Bart and the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder) laugh and outsmart them.

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Conclusion

Blazing Saddles has empathy with the underdogs, that makes it okay for us to laugh. It has a tight plot that uses the occasional odd bit to enhance its jokes.

A Million Ways to Die in the West follows a more contemporary schemes of firing off jokes like shotgun pellets, hoping one or two will hit the target. It’s funny, but the humor is hit and miss. The writing just isn’t as taut.

So, with all due respect, I can’t agree with Mel Brooks. This movie isn’t a patch on his.

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Posted in: Movies