How the West was won, again

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews - Evan Wil­liams

A Mil­lion Ways to Die in the West (MA15+) Na­tional re­lease The Trip to Italy (M) Limited re­lease X-Men: Days of Fu­ture Past (M) Na­tional re­lease

CO­ME­DIAN Mil­ton Berle once de­scribed an adult western as one “where the hero still kisses his horse at the end, but this time he wor­ries about it”. By any test, A Mil­lion Ways to Die in the West is an adult western. I didn’t see Seth Mac­Far­lane kiss­ing his horse at the end, but there’s no short­age of other adult in­gre­di­ents: gross hu­mour, crude di­a­logue, episodes of bizarre vi­o­lence and out­ra­geous sex­ual ref­er­ences. Adult is one word for it. Hi­lar­i­ous is an­other.

The comic western is a rare breed. Westerns of any kind are rare these days, but gen­uinely funny ones have al­ways been in short sup­ply. The Marx Broth­ers had a go, and Lau­rel and Hardy did their darnedest in Way Out West, but Hol­ly­wood more or less gave the game away af­ter Mel Brooks de­liv­ered his clas­sic western spoof in Blaz­ing Sad­dles, 40 years ago.

Mac­Far­lane rein­vents the genre. In ad­di­tion to co-writ­ing and di­rect­ing, he stars as Al­bert, a daggy sheep farmer down on his luck. The year is 1882, the set­ting is One Stump, Ari­zona, and A Mil­lion Ways to Die in the West is the fun­ni­est film I’ve seen for years. The open­ing cred­its set the tone — one of mock-rev­er­en­tial homage to old western con­ven­tions. Movie ti­tles nowa­days tend to come at the end, and of­ten we’re half­way through the fi­nal cred­its be­fore the name of the film ap­pears (so it was that one, af­ter all). Mac­Far­lane kicks off with bold red let­ter­ing over dusty views of Mon­u­ment Val­ley, ac­com­pa­nied by the sort of tri­umphal score that Elmer Bern­stein might have writ­ten. The cen­tral premise is this: for­get all those ro­man­tic myths about the old west, with its he­roes and pi­o­neer­ing spirit. The real west was a bloody aw­ful place: vi­o­lent, dis­easerid­den and dan­ger­ous. As Mac­Far­lane put it in a re­cent in­ter­view: “You ei­ther feared for your life or were bored to death.”

It may not sound funny, but it is. In an early scene, Al­bert is dumped by his girl­friend (Amanda Seyfried) when he chick­ens out of a gun­fight in the main street. Hu­mil­i­ated, he teams up with Anne (Charlize Theron), who keeps a pro­tec­tive eye on him and helps re­store his con­fi­dence. When Al­bert dis­cov­ers that his new love is al­ready mar­ried to Clinch (Liam Nee­son), the mean­est gun­slinger in these parts, he finds him­self con­fronting an­other ruth­less foe.

This may be 1882 but ev­ery­one speaks in 21st-century ac­cents and con­tem­po­rary id­ioms. And that’s part of the joke, of course, along with a host of out­landish char­ac­ters in­clud­ing Ruth, the town’s ever-cheer­ful and un­re­pen­tant whore (Sarah Sil­ver­man) and her boyfriend Ed­ward (Gio­vanni Ribisi). Mac­Far­lane is per­haps best known for Ted, his 2012 hit about a teddy bear that comes to life. In A Mil­lion Ways to Die he lov­ingly re­cy­cles the set­pieces fa­mil­iar from count­less westerns: the shoot-out, the bar­room brawl, the scene at the county fair, the rat­tlesnake se­quence, the square dance, the lady sharp­shooter with prodi­gious skills. Fart jokes are all too plen­ti­ful, along with co­pi­ous ref­er­ences to bod­ily flu­ids, but in this zany con­text the film gets away with them. And the screen­play is crammed with witty lines. The western lives on. WHO re­mem­bers that old par­lour game called Chi­nese Whis­pers, in which a mes­sage is passed from ear to ear along a line of play­ers? In the best known ex­am­ple, what be­gins at one end as “Send re­in­force­ments, we are go­ing to ad­vance” comes out at the other as “Send three-and-fourpence, we are go­ing to a dance.” Kids’ stuff? Of course. But not too corny to find a place in Michael Win­ter­bot­tom’s se­quel to his 2012 comic road movie The Trip, in which a cou­ple of English chums made a tour of gourmet restaurants in the north of Eng­land and ex­changed much in­con­se­quen­tial ban­ter along the way. Steve Coogan and Rob Bry­don are back for the re­run.

We fol­low them on a drive from Li­guna to Capri, with the oblig­a­tory stopover in Rome,

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