Week in Film: ‘Maleficent,’ ‘Million Ways to Die’ and more


I’m not going to apologize for laughing my ass off at Seth MacFarlane’s “A Million Ways to Die in the West.”

And I’m not going to compare it to “Blazing Saddles.” Yes, they’re both spoofs of westerns with their own unique brand of gross-out humor. But that’s as far as the comparison goes.

Mel Brooks’ breakthrough 1974 comedy was a reflection of his unique brand of humor, rooted in the shpritz of the Borscht Belt, but also naughtier and more knowing, absurdist, silly and boundary-pushing. Watch it again today and you’ll laugh – but if you weren’t around when it first appeared, you’ll wonder why it was considered such an envelope-pushing – nay, envelope-shredding – comedy.

MacFarlane has an entirely different comic sensibility; the difference is generational, a comic mindset informed by everything else that’s happened in the intervening four decades. He’s every bit the absurdist that Brooks is, but with a much darker streak running through his humor and a wider-ranging sense of ad hominem comic references.

Inevitably, some of the complaints about this film will focus on the gross-out moments, whether violent, sexual or scatological. Personally, I’ll tip my hat to MacFarlane for his restraint, particularly in a climactic scene involving Neil Patrick Harris, the effects of a laxative and a couple of hats. He goes exactly where you expect him to, given the freedom of an R rating – and yet he uses surprising discipline in showing us just enough to get the huge laugh he’s primed audiences for, without overdoing it.

His story is about a cowardly sheep farmer (who he plays) who learns to be a gun-slinger from the Old West equivalent of a gun moll (Charlize Theron). But he hates the life of his times, complaining constantly about how awful and potentially fatal his existence is in the Old West of 1880s Arizona. It’s really an excuse for a string of gags – bloody, dirty and otherwise inappropriately hilarious jokes – that range from the obvious to the bizarrely random. That includes several wonderfully weird cameos by famous faces that come and go with the speed of a “Family Guy” bit.

Yet, just as MacFarlane has revealed himself over the years to be a closet aficionado of the Broadway musical, he’s also an obvious lover of the classic western. Otherwise, why include the many loving shots of the landscape in Monument Valley (which is in Utah, by the way, not Arizona)? You wait for him to pull the rug out – to comment on these panoramic vistas with a gag. But he rarely does.

Is it great movie? Perhaps not – but I laughed frequently and heartily. Indeed, I came out of it thinking that I’d gotten as many big laughs as I did from “Neighbors,” a much sloppier film. Think of MacFarlane as a post-modern classicist, who loves his source material, even if he can’t resist the impulse to mock its conventions. Or just see “A Million Ways to Die in the West” for the sheer, vulgar fun of it.

“Maleficent” is a revisionist fairy tale based on “Sleeping Beauty” – and not just the fairy tale, but the 1959 Disney animated film.

But “Maleficent” is maladroit, or perhaps just plain dull. Given the amount of obvious CG work it contains, it might as well have been animated. It would have needed a much stronger script to make it a fraction as interesting as the animated original.

This review continues on my website.

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