How the West was shorn
ONE of the greatest lines ever uttered in a Western comes from Eli Wallach’s bandit leader Calvera in The Magnificent Seven, in reference to the villagers his gang continually preys upon: “If God had not meant for them to be sheared, he would not have made them sheep.”
Life isn’t easy for a character in a Western. In fact, it’s always under threat from something or other. If it’s not cantankerous gunslingers, it’s marauding Injuns (beg pardon), disease, rattlesnakes, bandits, falling rocks, stampeding animals, and lately, even freakin’ E.T. got in on the act of oppressing and slaying the hapless folk whose only crime was trying to make a living (hah!) in the Old West.
A Million Ways To Die In The West rounds up all of these tropes (except the aliens) and tosses them into Seth MacFarlane’s blender so The Family Guy guy can serve up a tale of living and dying in a pretty nasty environment.
After voicing and directing TED to huge success, MacFarlane now co-writes and directs this Western comedy which revolves around hapless sheep farmer Albert Stark (MacFarlane), which brings us back to the quote from Señor Calvera.
If anything, Albert is a contemporary-movie reincarnation of those shearable creatures. He’s a nice guy, a real anomaly in the town of Old Stump. He’s funny, shy and non-violent, all of which make him a natural victim.
Most of the townspeople (his parents included) generally shun him, neighbouring farmers hate him (his sheep keep ruining their pastures), and his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him in the first few minutes of the film. To make things worse, she immediately hooks up with Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), the dapper gunfighter who runs the town’s moustachery.
Albert’s life changes when he meets the beautiful Anna (Charlize Theron), who gives him a crash course in gunplay so that he can challenge Foy to salvage his honour and win back Louise.
He thinks Anna’s just in town to buy some land and start a farm, unaware that she’s actually the wife of notorious killer Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), who has left her there and gone off to rob a stagecoach with his gang.
That’s pretty much all that can be revealed of the main set-up for this potty-mouthed comedy without giving away some of its cool surprises and cameos (including one terrific guest appearance that’s been unfortunately spoiled rotten on the Web) and hilarious gags.
Speaking of which, there are not that many genuine gems among the jokes that MacFarlane and his co-writers throw at us with the rapidity of a hand-cranked Gatling gun.
A lot of it is just toilet humour (one, literally a toilet joke, has been censored to spare us delicate Malaysian cinemagoers), lots of sex talk (one character is a busy prostitute who steadfastly refuses to have pre-marital sex with her boyfriend), and the rest revolves around Albert’s obsession with the myriad ways the West can kill an unsuspecting person. Or even a suspecting one.
And some attempts at racial jokes don’t just fall flat, they explode like festering pustules.
The film veers between straight-faced Western and self-referential silliness, sometimes with great success and with mixed results at other times.
With the help of his enthusiastic cast, MacFarlane somehow manages to keep the general tone affable, despite the foul-mouthed dialogue, political incorrectness and sudden outbreaks of ... death.
And since the movie is so good-natured, and generally amusing, I guess most viewers who go in for his brand of humour, as well as the nerds among us who see in him a kindred soul, would be willing to forgive the occasional misstep.
Albert’s character arc also takes some pleasing turns, with his epiphany coming after an encounter with Cochise (Wes Studi) and his tribe, giving him the inspiration to resolve his conflict with Clinch in a quite unexpected fashion.
Not bad for a figurative sheep. Alas, what MacFarlane does with the actual sheep in this film is an entirely different matter – that dream sequence could well be the stuff of nightmares.