A Million Ways to Die in the West, Seth MacFarlane’s new Western adventure flick, isn’t the flaming pile of garbage some critics have made it out to be. It’s more on the mediocre level, like the garbage can without the fire–a movie that manages to neuter every joke, wisecrack comment, and curse word it lobs up into the dusty desert breeze.
Overall, it amounts to another disappointment for fans of spoof movies, a genre that now seems more focused on getting butts into the seats, not jokes on the screen. Over the years, save for a few cult outliers (MacGruber, Walk Hard), the spoof has suffered from an overabundance of stale pop culture cracks and half-baked comedy. Just take a look at some of the films we’ve been subjected to over the last few years: Movie 43, A Haunted House, Dance Flick, Vampires Suck, Breaking Wind and on and on and on.
Believe it or not, there was a time when the parody was the pinnacle of comedy, when actors told jokes that made audiences laugh, and filmmakers created stories that were both clever and coherent. However, somewhere along the way, studios began regularly churning out projects that were no more than glorified placeholders for their earlier esteemed brethren like Airplane, The Naked Gun, and Blazing Saddles (the main inspiration behind Million Ways).
It’s hard to put blame on one particular film or director for the drop in quality. It’s certainly not MacFarlane, whose Million Ways to Die came long after the bottom fell out. If you’re looking for scapegoats, though, your best bests are Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, the filmmaking duo behind such horrific farce flicks as Date Movie, Epic Movie, and, most recently, The Starving Games. The ire Friedberg and Seltzer have drawn from crowds is both boisterous and vehement–Airplane! and Naked Gun director David Zucker has said that the duo “don’t spoof scenes from other movies so much as repeat them”–but that hasn’t been enough to slow their efforts. With the exception of The Starving Games, their films have always made money–no matter how much critics kick and scream, and plead for people not to see them in the first place.
Low budgets and high returns are one of the main reasons Hollywood began pumping out parody flicks back in the 1970s and ’80s, a time when the Zucker brothers were just starting out and Mel Brooks was reaching his stride (ironically, Zucker and spoof staple Leslie Nielson had some role in helping Friedberg and Selzer get their start, having starred in the duo’s first script, Spy Hard). Brooks in particular had a penchant for successfully toeing the line between funny and offensive, a trick that appears lost on current directors who fumble their way through gags about sex and race.
Even A Million Ways to Die in the West, made by someone who’s known for being distasteful, comes off like Blazing Saddles’ tame older cousin, right down to the opening credits. MacFarlane clearly did not make the same gambles Brooks did when he came out with Blazing Saddles. In fact, during the first screening to studio executives, Brooks was warned that it would be a hard sell to theaters, particularly due to its repeated use of the N-word. However, the director held firm and kept those moments in the film. Perhaps it’s that lack of risk that’s really missing from today’s spoof movies. There are few studios and filmmakers out there who are willing to push buttons and make one that’s fresh and funny. And why would there be? Why release something risky when you’re probably going to make money on a substandard product, consequence-free?
Then again, even if MacFarlane spiced up the story to something approaching Brooks’s creation, it likely wouldn’t have worked. I mean, can you imagine Blazing Saddles being released today without it spawning multiple lawsuits and a trillion thinkpieces? Brooks himself said as much during a 2012 interview with the DGA. “If they did a remake of Blazing Saddles today, they would leave out the N-word. And then, you’ve got no movie. And I wouldn’t have used it so much if I didn’t have Richard Pryor with me on the set as one of my writers. And Cleavon Little [as Sheriff Bart] was great. Even though it was allowed, I kept asking Cleavon, ‘Is that all right there? Is that too much there? Am I pushing this?’ and he’d say, ‘No, no, no, it’s perfect there.’”
A Million Ways is about as close to a Blazing Saddles remake as we’re going to get. While it was never meant to step in and save the genre from terribleness, given the success of Ted–MacFarlane’s previous comedy–there was at least some hope that this film would be mildly entertaining, and reverse the current trend. Sadly, that won’t happen, leaving spoof movies in the same state of disarray they were in before MacFarlane came along. To quote Sheriff Bart from Blazing Saddles, “To speak the plain truth, it’s getting pretty damn dull around here.”