In 1973, self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs and feminist “libber” Billie Jean King faced off in an exhibition match that changed the world of sports. It was dubbed The Battle of the Sexes and so too is the film from Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. The spectacle served up the largest crowd ever to witness a tennis match and not merely for the novelty of man pitted against woman. The contest was the early-70s female liberation movement given a sporting arena and provided a battleground where Title IX, an Educational Amendment guaranteeing equal financial resources to male and female sports, essentially won out. Read More
The Book of Henry, only the third film from “indie” director wunderkind Colin Trevorrow, plays like a film adaptation of a best selling novel. There’s sudden shocking twists, richly drawn, if brazenly over-the-top, characters and a hurried pace that all coalesce to feel like the product of 300 pages of prose siphoned into a 100-page screenplay. Big, bold and unpredictable, Henry unfolds like a suburban Dan Brown novel; it’s pulpy and scrumptious while it lasts, brimming with sudden breakneck turns that veer the narrative into perpetual new territory, but won’t leave much of an imprint once you’ve slammed it shut. Read More
That Sarah Silverman had the gall to break out of her irreverent comic persona for a melancholic melodrama as jet black as I Smile Back is impressive in and of itself. That the film itself is resoundingly potent and her performance amongst the strongest of the year is nothing short of a shocker. Hers is what many would refer to as a “breakout” role, were Silverman not already close being to a household name. Nonetheless, the performance front and center of I Smile Back is evidence enough that Silverman needs more dramatic roles and she needs them now. Read More
Seth McFarlane‘s go-for-broke comic stylings looked to have runs its course when Fox pulled the plug on Family Guy in 2001. But like a zombie on the rise, McFarlane rose from the grave and has gone on to infest America with two spin-offs show (American Dad, The Cleveland Show) and two feature length films, each predicated on crass sight gags, a barrage of cultural references, and poop jokes. Somehow, McFarlane has saved some of his best – and most immature – material for his latest: A Million Ways to Die in the West. It’s a comedy in the crudest sense, a smorgasbord of pee-pee jokes and doo-doo gags. But, damnit, I laughed.
McFarlane’s western comedy – one of the few in a genre that includes Mel Brook‘s love-it-or-hate-it Blazing Saddles and the Chris Farley and Matthew Perry-led Almost Heroes – starts with the most boring credit sequence I can recall in recent history. Skill-less heli-shots of rising Arizona plateaus superimposed with serif-heavy, western-style font declaring a tome of names is almost lifeless enough to snuff out any anticipation for what’s to come. An un-clever throwback to times when “they didn’t know any better,” this out-of-the-gates launch makes for a starting line lull that nearly derails the proceedings before they’ve even begun, and takes a full five minutes to recover from.
With that downtime behind us, we meet Albert (McFarlane) – a man too clever for his own good, cautiously living in the Wild Wild West. He’s quite obviously a man born in the wrong era, a conceit from which McFarlane mines much of his comedy. Albert is far too progressive to thrive in a society that resolves issues with shoot outs, far too sarcastic for a town where bar fights break out over a sour glance, and far too un-moustiacioed to be considered a man in good standing. Plus, he’s a sheep farmer who can’t even keep his sheep in one place so his pockets are more often filled with sand than pennies (or, God forbid, an entire dollar).
Because of his yellow belly ways, lowly social standing, and (presumably) lack of a mustache, his betrothed Louise (the ever-obnoxious Amanda Seyfried) dumps him for the mustache-twirling Foy (a fitfully funny Neil Patrick Harris.) Albert vents to his only friends and loving couple Edward and Ruth (Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman respectively) but realizes his situation might not be so bad considering Ruth is a prominent prostitute and yet has not slept with her long-time boyfriend. After all, they’re both Christians saving themselves for marriage. The comedy of their nontraditional set-up is a well oft drawn from but when it works, it works really well. When it doesn’t, let’s just say someone’s scooping seed off someone else’s face. Ew.
A largely humorless Liam Neeson (who knew he couldn’t be funny?) arrives on the scene as ruthless gun slinger Clinch Leatherwood with wife Anna (Charlize Theron) in tow. When Leatherwood takes off into the sunset (to do lord knows what), Anna befriends down-in-the-dumps Albert and their relationship blossoms into something that resembles a crush, which, you guessed it, causes a bit of an issue when Clinch does ride back into town.
For a movie basically resolving around a single joke – living in the old west sucked – McFarlane is able to mine a good few dozen laughs and reasonably commendable human drama (for what it is at least.) A likable and strangely committed Theron is partly responsible for us feeling any sort of bond with the characters as McFarlane’s Albert is as much a cartoon character as Peter Griffin is. But while Theron grounds us, McFarlane provides comedy in frequent, rapid-fire bursts.
You’d be hard pressed to find anyone arguing that McFarlane’s quality of comedy is anything resembling sophisticated but his quick gag, shotgun style methodology of throwing as much as possible at the wall and seeing what sticks results in an undeniably buffet of giggles. Surely there’s poop jokes mixed in with the more clever one-liners (“Take your hat off boy! Thats a dollar bill!” being the one that made me laugh most) but – as Albert’s shooting skills with attest to – if you fire enough bullets, some of them are bound to hit the target.
That’s not to say however that McFarlane doesn’t occasionally cross the line. His penchant for the occasional racist zinger may land him in a bit of hot water with more liberal-minded audiences but remember this is a movie in which a man fills not one, but two top hats brimming with dookie. Because Seth McFarlane. If you’re not offended, you’re doing something wrong.
As much as I wanted to leave this one with more fodder for my anti-McFarlane campaign, the funnyman titillated my childish side just enough to free the laughs from my hard-worn shell. It’s not necessarily something I’m proud of, but I snickered heartily alongside the (predominantly juvenile) audience members… and fairly often. While A Million Ways to Die in the West may not be a film I actively recommend, it’s one I admit will likely work your funny bone, under the right circumstances.