2014: A Million Ways to Die in the West (And the East)

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     I hate to joke about a film based on such an extraordinary human being, and until this past year a living one to boot, but the amount of torture wrought upon Louis Zamperini is nearly laughable, at least as depicted in Angelina Jolie’s World War II epic “Unbroken.” Not because withering away in the middle of the ocean is funny. Not because imprisonment in a Japanese POW camp is funny. No, because Jolie’s depiction of Zamperini is almost completely devoid of humanity. At times he seems almost superhuman, in fact. Except for some rudimentary flashbacks of Louis as a kid getting bullied and getting into trouble, the audience learns essentially nothing about what makes the Olympic runner and hell-on-Earth survivor tick. “If you can take it, you can make it” is not enough to explain this man’s courage, and therefore, to some extent, the film does him a disservice. Jack O’Connell is obviously a talented actor, imbuing just enough nuance to make us invest in Louis despite the script’s shortcomings. But the shortcomings are many: a repetitive narrative structure, contrived dialogue (“If you can take it, you can make it” is uttered probably four or five times over the course of the movie), and an anti-climactic ending. By the end, following scene after scene of Zamperini suffering, many of which work on their own, it’s difficult to surmise the point of it all. Sure, watching Louis overcome adversity is inspiring stuff on a primal level, but then what? Even if it’s a true story, two-plus hours of watching a man go through hell, then return home to his family glowing and Italian-tan again just isn’t that interesting. It’s like one lengthy montage of the million ways this man could have died but somehow didn’t. For example, Louis and his fellow stranded patriots dodging the gunfire of a flyby fighter plane, or Louis shrugging off a broken ankle as he’s forced to lift a steel 2×4 over his head for thirty minutes. These scenes, particularly the latter, are occasionally powerful, but strung together they’re exhausting.  In the case of “Unbroken,” the whole is lesser than the sum of its parts.

Grade: C 

Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, and Neil Patrick Harris in “A Million Ways to Die in the West”

     Seth MacFarlane’s “Ted” is the funniest studio flick of 2012. His western parody “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” however, might be the biggest comedic misfire of 2014, relative to talent involved anyway. The former encompasses all of his best comedic instincts, and the latter encompasses all of his worst. From meaningless and obvious cutaway gags to the most witless of bathroom humor, his latest is a surprising dud. It doesn’t help that, like many a bad comedy, all of the funny bits are in the trailer. Make no mistake, there’s a worthy joke here and there, but they’re scarce in a silly satire that for some reason spends an inordinate amount of time trying to earn emotional investment. The viewer isn’t tuning in to find out if MacFarlane’s Albert will win back his ex-girlfriend or hook up with Charlize Theron instead. They’re tuning in to laugh. True antagonists, admittedly beautiful Arizona photography, and romantic drama, no matter how insincere, suggest MacFarlane wanted to pay tribute to westerns whilst milking them for comedy, but the result is a film that succeeds at neither. Neil Patrick Harris delivers some needed quirk as Albert’s romantic rival, but his character is quickly brushed aside once Liam Neeson’s villainous Clinch enters the fray. Charlize Theron and Amanda Seyfried do what they can with rather thankless roles, but it’s Sarah Silverman and Giovanni Ribisi as a prostitute and her virgin boyfriend who provide the most bang for buck (no pun intended). Unfortunately, Seth MacFarlane decided to cast himself. In the lead role. In live action. In a period film. MacFarlane is an incredible voice performer, but he’s no big screen protagonist, at least not in the flesh. And his mannerisms simply don’t mesh with the western iconography, even if it is a satire. It’s telling that the best scene of the movie is after the credits. Here’s to hoping MacFarlane returns to form with “Ted 2.”

Grade: C- 

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