Hey Yo, Draven here.
We have a nice little surprise before the weekend. Earlier today, Seth MacFarlane tweeted about a test screening that occurred for his second feature film, A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST. Shortly after that, a loyal reader going by Slacker McFly contacted me and asked if we would be interested in a review of the cut of the film that was screened.
Now, keep in mind that the film is not scheduled to be released for another five months (May 30, 2014), and so the cut that was screened will definitely not be the final cut the rest of us will get to see next summer. Still, it is interesting to see where the film is at this point, and what MacFarlane and company are going for. So without further ado let me turn this over to Slacker McFly:
Hey guys, love the site, and when I got tickets to a screening of Seth MacFarlane's A Million Ways To Die In The West in Long Beach, CA last night, I immediately thought of sending you guys my thoughts. If you end up running this, call me Slacker McFly (as in, "You're a").
The woman who introduced the movie told us that this was a "work-in-progress" screening, with unfinished effects, editing, and sound work, but aside from one sequence towards the end, it looked pretty much ready to go. Considering the length was about 2 hours-plus, I can imagine that some of what I saw won't make it into the final film, but I was racking my brains, and couldn't think of what they could lose without making serious alterations to the plot.
The movie stars Seth, himself, as a sheep farmer (yuk, yuk), and we open on him in the middle of a showdown with a surly lookin' gunfighter. After chastising the guy for showing up late ("Last I checked, high noon didn't mean 12:15."), he pussyfoots out of the fight in front of the whole town, leading his girlfriend (played by Amanda Seyfried) to break up with him. After he sees her with another guy, the owner of the local moustacherie (played by Neil Patrick Harris with remarkable facial hair), he challenges her new beau to a duel in the center of town. Problem is, as he admitted to his first challenger in the opening, he's never fired a gun in his life. Lucky for him, the young, sharpshootin' wife of a notorious outlaw happens to be in town and takes an interest in him, and offers to teach him a thing or two about gunfighting; even luckier for him, she's played by Charlize Theron, and she seems to be not only extremely sympathetic, but attracted to his nerdy cynicism. But it's just a matter of time before her vicious husband, played by Liam Neeson, eventually catches up with her, and claims her back from her new life with this smart, but tenderfooted nice guy.
The title is A Million Ways To Die In The West, and sure enough, there's a ton of dialogue and sight gags devoted to showing the plethora of ways being in that place and time can suddenly (or slowly) kill you. Early on, Seth's character gives a huge speech running down all the ways that the frontier is a cruel, vicious, unforgiving place that has little to do with the narrative, but sets up his cowardly, miserable character. Needless to say, he bucks up, learns a thing or two 'bout a thing or two, and takes control of his life, but that notion of everything ("literally everything") seemingly being set up specifically to kill you gets constantly reiterated throughout. This seems to be MacFarlane's thesis for the film, his specific mark he sought to put on the western genre. While it's a funny notion, one that has, admittedly, been mostly unexplored in westerns (at least the backlot-shot American ones that seem to have inspired this film), it does not do enough to distinguish the film from the countless westerns that have preceded it.
The movie that immediately comes to mind when thinking of A Million Ways To Die In The West is Your Highness. That film was also handsomely produced, and terribly funny in parts, but straddled an awkward line between ripe parody and genuine homage that didn't seem to click with mainstream audiences. There are loving shots of Monument Valley, but other than those, the action and cinematography (as they exist now) makes the film look more like TV than the kind of grandiose cinema Leone, Ford, or Eastwood were known for (although homages to all three pop up throughout, including a cute Leone bit at the outset). This film plays like a straightforward western, but like Family Guy, it loves to remind you that this plotline has all been done before, and Seth never misses a chance to not only wink at the audience, but to explain the reason for the winking and to pontificate why no one ever thought to wink about it before. The jokes land, and Seth, the performer, wins over the audience, but there are long stretches devoted to Neeson's character and the Seth/Charlize love story that are played completely straight. Some side characters exist only to shout out punchlines (in true Family Guy fashion), while others are exposition machines who'd be comfortable in any number of films within this genre (think of Damian Lewis and Charles Dance's roles in Your Highness). With a little judicious editing, Seth could emphasize the comedy over the plot machinations, and by filtering out all but the funniest of the jokes, could make this a hilarious little western oddity. But as is, the movie's overlong, underdeveloped, and sometimes quite boring.
But, like Ted before it, when the movie's funny, it's goddamn funny, and a large part of why that is is the game cast. Seth is more at home cracking wise than he is making googly eyes at Charlize Theron, but when he's rattling off one-liners and knowing references (such as the aformentioned speech about mortality in the west), he gives us a glimpse at what is already a fully-formed, confident screen persona. Perhaps the movie's greatest success is showing his viability as a leading man, even if the film ends up contributing as much as THE LONE RANGER to the resurgence of the western. Charlize Theron is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the more impressive of the two, letting her hair down and relaxing into the environment as easily as you'd hope an Oscar-winner would. She has to play tough, romantic, and funny, and sometimes all three at the same time, and she does it effortlessly and charmingly. She has to be the dramatic center of this film, and somehow pulls it off without being a bore or anything less than radiant and awesome.
Amanda Seyfried isn't quite as lucky, with her role coming off as a mere plot point, but NPH, as her new beau, is quite hilarious, with his ridiculous moustache and effete attitude creating a character far removed from both his Harold and Kumar and Barney Stinson personas. He gets a musical number about halfway though, where he actively celebrates his moustache, that does nothing to move the plot forward (which makes me think it'll be cut), but is a hilarious little interlude that shows off his formidable performing abilities. Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman score points as Seth's buddies, a gleeful couple unfazed that Silverman's character makes her living as a local prostitute (bedding 10 men "on a slow day").
Liam Neeson isn't around that much as the villain, but he smartly plays his character completely straight, creating a right bit of menace out of a thinly-written role. On top of that, there are a bunch of cameos, some longer than others, some blink-and-you'll-miss-it (think Ryan Reynolds' appearance in Ted), including one shocker that brought the house down, and may be the funniest single bit in the whole movie (you'll know it when you see it).
Overall, the film needs work, and may lose some of the softer and/or controversial gags before its release (a shooting gallery featuring runaway slaves as the targets caused several African-Americans to loudly protest in the middle of the movie, and some arguably mean-spirited Native-American jokes went right over the heads of the audience), but as a pure laugh-fest, it's not-bad bordering on pretty good. If Seth can whittle down the more tedious scenes and plot elements, and only highlights the gags, the film could be a really fun western-comedy that proves his talents as a leading man, if not as a director of large-scale movies. But the engine that moves the narrative along is used up, there are precious little surprises in terms of plot, and the romantic element feels shoehorned in and continually drives the momentum to a screeching halt. It's one thing to keep making us laugh, but if we are dead certain where everything's going (like the lesser episodes of Family Guy have proven), can the film really be something truly engaging and cinematic?
Follow me on Twitter here!