How the West was won, again
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,