The late, lamented biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who popularized science for the masses and made the opabinia the favorite fossil, after the trilobite, for some of us, was a proponent of the punctuated equilibrium theory of evolution. Rather than a steady-state and gradual process, evolution was a thing of fits and starts, pushed by a particularly spectacular random mutation, or in response to a particularly spectacular ecological disaster. I was put in mind of this theory while watching Seth McFarlanes A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST, a film that is punctuated with some truly brilliant bits of nonsense that almost, but not quite, makes the rest of the film worth experiencing. What we have here is about 45 minutes of a terrific movie. Alas, the rest of it is filler made up of riffs and half-baked jokes that dont quite work.
MacFarlane, he of televisions Family Guy and the aggressively funny TED on the big screen, has taken on the classic western. Not just any western, but John Fords style of western cinema, replete with heroic shots of Monument Valley and everything else, as well as a swelling score that references the ones created for Ford by Richard Hageman. In this MacFarlane is impeccable, tweaking the genre by reverencing the inspiration. The story takes elements from those westerns, and a thousand others, and refashions them with a wry perspective, that of the a man who sees the wild west for what it is, a nasty, brutish place where pretty much everyone and everything wants to kill you. In MacFarlanes Wild West, even the tumbleweeds are lethal. Its a premise for everyone who looked as all that dust and heat and thought, “I think not.”
MacFarlane is Albert Stark, a sheep farmer in 1882 Arizona. Hes not good at it. The sheep wander, and, as will be demonstrated in tight, ferociously anatomically correct close-up, fail to respect him as their shepherd. Hes also not good at romance, losing his true love, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), to the local moustache enthusiast (Neil Patrick Harris) after preferring mediation to a gunfight. Unconsoled by best friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and his girlfriend Ruth (Sarah Silverman), Albert is ready to pull up stakes, abandon the sheep, and head for San Francisco when his life is turned upside down. The turning is courtesy of Anna (Charlize Theron), the new girl in town who takes a shine to Albert and decides to help him get Louise back by teaching him to shoot. And to engage in several rounds of make-xxx-jealous. What Albert doesnt know, but we do, is that Annas husband is Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), the toughest gunfighter in the territory.
When the satire works, it is a thing of Dada wonder. Sharp absurdity played with a nimble spirit. When it doesnt, it is a pallid, bloated thing smugly vamping for its own amusement. A drug-induced vision quest sparkles with imagination and wit. The running joke of Edward and Ruth as good Christians waiting for marriage to consummate their love while Ruth works as a whore remains buoyant with the flawless innocence Ribisi and Silverman infuse into the characters. As for Neil Patrick Harris, who sneers, sing, and dances his way through the film, as good as he is bringing a finely tuned hammy bravado, he is stymied by a scene of bowel excess despite the deft aplomb he conjures in some of the ancillary business involved.
MacFarlane, like his characters sheep, needed to be reined in just a bit. Granted the temptation to equal, even top, the bean-eating sequence in Mel Brooks perfect western satire, BLAZING SADDLES, is irresistible. Its also almost impossible to accomplish merely by upping the gross-out factor. Or by including tepid repartee between MacFarlane and Theron that is neither particularly funny as a send-up of the rom-com genre. Kudo, though, for making the guy the nebbish, and the girl the shootist (yes, a film reference as well as a description). And for casting Neeson, who doesnt try to funny, and is both that and palpably psychotic. And for including a cameo, the best of several, that is as perfect as it is unexpected.
A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST is a frustration of a film. Ambitious in scope, it veers off course too often when it should have been a righteously sardonic masterpiece skewering the present, the past, and cinema.