Another Summer and another Western is getting torn to pieces by the critics. Last year it was The Lone Ranger and this year it is A Million Ways to Die in the West.
It could be that this is a genre people are particular precious about. Certainly fairly straight versions are heralded as modern masterpieces, as with True Grit and Django Unchained (both over-rated), but those that try to do something a little different, like Cowboys and Aliens, are generally not well received. Of course sometimes that’s because they’re not good films but if you look at The Lone Ranger, patchy as it was, it did not deserve the drubbing it got.
The comedy A Million Ways to Die in the West has been described, in the reviews, as childish, smug, insipid and moronic. Well, at the risk of destroying any reputation I may have as someone who knows about movies, I’m going to come out in its defence because I quite liked it.
Let’s be clear, it isn’t a great film. I certainly can’t ever see me feeling the need to watch all or any part of it again and there are bits I wish I hadn’t seen in the first place but it is gently amusing and I was easily entertained for the two hour running time.
The movie shows about as much reverence to the history of the Old West as the beginning of Toy Story 3 but it does have some interesting observations to make on life during that time. In fact the script seems to be built around someone’s Cowboy stand up routine. It has running jokes on why no one appeared to smile in photos in those days, the oddly acceptable nature of prostitution in an ostensibly Christian society as well as much on the fairly regular occurrences of violence. These are all interesting points and the movie does much to effectively puncture any romanticised view of the period.
Wittily observed as it often is though, it isn’t half as funny as it needs to be, or indeed thinks it is. I think I laughed out loud once the entire way through and this was when someone got hit in the face with a plate. (I do love a bit of slapstick.)
Too much of the humour is derived from dirty talk or toilet humour and while this can be amusing it often goes too far. Its bad enough to see the comedy stylings of Neil Patrick Harris put to use on an extended sequence in which he poos in a hat but we certainly didn’t need to see the contents of said bowler spilling out onto the floor afterwards.
Similarly later on, there is an obvious joke where the hero has a sheep wee on his face. Why do we need to see a close up of the ram’s penis as it urinates? Frankly that particular animatronic was not a good use of the special effects budget. You’ve made the joke, now step away.
Yet in most cases, despite a fair amount of misguided humour, the cast sell it. Writer/director Seth MacFarlane as the lead is likeable enough and he is surrounded by a cast of talented comedy performers. Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman are both good and Neil Patrick Harris capitalises nicely on his How I Met Your Mother persona, even using one of that show’s catch phrases. In fact that line: ‘challenge accepted’ is probably what he said when asked if he could make the hat crapping funny.
Playing opposite MacFarlane is Charlize Theron and a lot of the reviews have asked what on earth an actress of her calibre is doing in this movie. The simple answer to that is that she is saving it. Quirky, wry and totally without pretension, it is her personality that covers the cracks.
Liam Neeson is in the mix too showing here, as he did in The Lego Movie, that he can’t do comedy. As it is he plays it pretty straight so he gets away with it.
There are also a number of celebrity cameos, some pointless and some pointed. There are two particularly good appearances but to even say who would give away what are a couple of the best gags in the film.
All in all then, if you want a quality comedy Western then see Blazing Saddles or The Three Amigos but if you want a gently amusing genre movie with likeable characters and a series of gags that just about hit more than they miss then you could do a lot worse.
Is this one for the kids?
There are it seems indeed a million ways to die in the West and while you don’t see quite that figure there are shootings, animal maulings, bludgeonings, incinerations, gassings, crushings, gorings, throat slittings and poisonings. I might have missed a few out.
Then of course there is the diarrhoea, animal genitalia, profanity, drug use and racial stereotyping (satirising racism you understand, not celebrating it) so all in all not one for the littlies.
The Ripley Factor:
Q. Do the female characters exist only to define or motivate men?
Q. Are the women in the film believable as real people?
Q. Are women objectified in a way that does not balance with the treatment of men in the film?
Q. Does the inclusion of the women in the film feel like tokenism?
2 out of 4 then. Just like everything else in the film, inconsistent and uneven but not totally beyond redemption.