The role that expectation plays in our enjoyment of cinema is an intriguing one. As I get older, it seems more and more people—notably those with spouses, kids, or responsibilities other than checking their Facebook notifications—have begun using the phrase, "It seems like a rental," when referring to films of tentative quality. My version of "It seems like a rental", is the noon showing on a Thursday afternoon, when I've suddenly found myself mysteriously awake before 2 PM. This is the story of how I found myself watching A Million Ways to Die in the West.
In A Million Ways to Die in the West, Seth MacFarlane's character, Albert, remarks early on, "I'm not the hero. I'm the guy in the crowd making fun of the hero's shirt." The problem with MacFarlane, is that he spends so much time making fun of the hero's shirt, that he never realizes that the hero walked away ten minutes ago. Take for example, the Ribisi and Silverman characters. Giovanni Ribisi plays MacFarlane's best friend, whose girlfriend (Sarah Silverman), is a local prostitute. Despite the nature of Silverman's profession, Ribisi and Silverman have never had sex—because they're Christians. The relationship is funny in concept and good for a few one-liners, but the film stretches the gag too thin, and it lazily devolves into sight gags involving bodily fluids or Silverman talking about her butt.
It's clear throughout the film that MacFarlane is smarter than he behaves. His best jokes utilize the setting: an explanation of why no one smiles in photographs, the rarity of a dollar bill, earning the trust of the Native Americans, etc. But for every clever joke that lands, there are three farts and a sheep wiener. It's as though MacFarlane had a few good ideas, and then filled the gaps with an assortment of bodily fluids and functions instead of taking the time to fine tune a cohesive final product. Even the good jokes go on too long, but the bad ones seem to last forever.
Neil Patrick Harris shows up for a few decent laughs, but also becomes the victim of a diarrhea gag. Liam Neeson plays a dangerous killer again, a role which is gradually becoming less and less amusing. There's a few cameos which illicit brief smiles, one of which was probably ruined if you've watched any of the film's trailers. The biggest surprise is that when Charlize Theron shows up, her and MacFarlane actually have chemistry.
MacFarlane's uninhibited disdain for the quality of life in the American West is a mixed bag of clever barbs and excessive whining, but it's best when he's accompanied by Theron. The two bond over a shared hatred for the machismo of their times, and it's unfortunate that their rapport is so often stunted by toilet humor.
In the end, and despite the hit-and-then-extreme-miss comedy style, I walked out of the theater satisfied; all thanks to the lens of low expectations. I was expecting shit and got farts.
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