By ALAN SWERDLOW
A Million Ways To Die In The West / Directed by Seth MacFarlane / 16SLVD
I have absolutely no doubt that a number of very serious academic analyses have been written about why contemporary American humour is so rooted both in the toilet stall and a juvenile approach to sexuality. If not, there should be. Actually, it can all be summed up quite easily: so-called “Gross-out Humour” depends entirely on shock value. Whereas Lenny Bruce and George Carlin leveraged the shock factor into recognition of unpalatable truths, today’s cluster of gross-out comedians seems content with the shock effect of its own accord. The problem with that approach is that it becomes self-defeating – a perfect illustration of the law of diminishing returns. We may initially gasp or catch our breath, but after multiple repetitions without variation or development, we start to yawn. From “Feh!” we move to “Eh!” and finally “Meh…”.
Ultimately, it’s all a spin on the fable of the boy who cried wolf too often. Here we have a clutch of overly juvenile adults saying “Poefie Kakka Wee-Wee” so regularly and demandingly, they lose the one thing they are striving for – our attention. It makes you want to give them a smack “upside the head” because many of today’s gross-out comedians are not untalented, least of all Seth MacFarlane, who began his career with the ground-breaking animated series The Family Guy.
It’s not that there aren’t some really good laughs in A Million Ways To Die in the West, there just aren’t enough of them, and far too much reliance on the endless repetition of notional gags that may have had currency in their initial conceptualisation but have nowhere to go. Repeating a gag does not make it funnier. On the contrary….
MacFarlane’s entire comedic structure for A Million Ways to Die… rests on the tensions caused by applying contemporary sensibilities (and language, and philosophy) to a period piece. It has its moments, but not always and not regularly. The film begins with an endless, swooping helicopter shot through Arizona’s Monument Valley, accompanied by Joel McNeely’s thunderous, string-heavy score, spoofing Elmar Bernstein “Western” style perfectly. The camera touches down on the main street of a rickety Western dorp, just in time for a High Noon stand-off duel. So far, so amusing.
MacFarlane himself plays Albert, an incompetent sheep farmer with querulous, unpleasant parents, in a town where regular cow-herding is far more glamorous and acceptable. He loses his girlfriend by talking his way out of the duel in a ragged but smartly configured monologue – almost Woody Allen, really, if it weren’t for the fact that MacFarlane is so white bread and mayonnaise. His closest friend (Giovanni Ribisi) is a virgin engaged to be married, but his fiancée happens to be a very hard-working whore in the local brothel. He is well aware of the fact, but because of his beliefs, they are “saving themselves till after they are married”.
Okay, it’s funny enough, but we return to this contradiction again and again with no variation or development. By the second repeat it is already unfunny. By the third or fourth time, it becomes an irritation. Now, that particular device is situational (the same thing that drives so-called “situation comedy”). It is an initiating device that can be used to strike further sparks of comedy when other situations collide with it. And it has been used extensively in many of the comedy westerns : Lee Marvin as a useless drunk of a gunslinger for hire in Cat Ballou; Gene Wilder’s nebbishy rabbi in The Frisco Kid; Clevon Little as the black sheriff of a racist western town in Blazing Saddles. All of those situations, though, were jumping off points for endless invention and further development, not hermetically sealed gags that stand alone.
Okay, there – I’ve said it! Blazing Saddles. I didn’t want to, but because it seems to be everything that A Million Ways… aspires to, the comparison had to come up and I’m awfully sorry that for all its sincere intentions to be a Blazing Saddles for a modern generation (hell, Mel Brooks’ movie was released 40 years ago), this one comes nowhere near.
MacFarlane’s scattershot approach has to pay dividends at some point, in much the same way as his hero wildly firing at targets has to hit at least one eventually. There is a beautifully conceived fight in a bar that demolishes any number of clichés in inspired choreographic mayhem. The sudden, violent, unsanitised and random deaths that give rise to the film’s title are probably a lot closer to reality in the West that was, and are very funny. So, too, is the demented song and dance routine about moustaches (introduced by an uncredited Bill Maher channelling Ed Sullivan), and a lovely running gag about why no-one smiles in old tintypes and photographic portraits in the Wild, Wild West.
The latter is expanded and variations are spun on its form, with a satisfying eventual punchline much further down the line. That makes it work but “My Girlfriend is a whore” doesn’t, purely because it lacks expansion and variation.
The one-liners, such as Albert’s assertion that there are only three songs in the West, and all were written by Stephen Foster, work, for the most part, because they aren’t hammered to death. Throwaway material often achieves greater results because there are no expectations. A lot of one-liners are chaff that fall by the wayside. They are there in quantity and just as many don’t yield anything at all.
Charlize Theron delivers a more relaxed and easy-going performance, pleasingly indicating untapped comedy potential there. Liam Neeson sensibly plays it straight as the villain of the piece, and Neil Patrick Harris … well, Neil Patrick Harris cannot do any wrong in my eyes these days, so effortless and finely honed are his comic sensibilities (we shall pretend that his appearances in the Smurf movies never happened, or he needed the money for an ageing relative’s carbuncle operation). He even manages to extract a shred of dignity out of a really crude, old, sophomoric diarrhoea gag purely by his physical comedy.
Yes, that word “sophomoric”. It brings us back to my introductory beef – that contemporary American humour is just so damn puerile. I just wish they’d all grow up and return to the comic heights they have reached in the past. A Million Ways To Die In The West made me laugh some, but I would rather watch Blazing Saddles again. And again.