Spoofs of Westerns were commonplace in the days when horse operas were popular, from Laurel and Hardy’s “Way Out West” (1930) and Jack Benny’s “Buck Benny Rides Again” (1940) through Mel Brooks’s “Blazing Saddles” (1974). But as oaters became less fashionable and their conventions curdled into risible cliché, the number of takeoffs declined, and so did their quality. Seth MacFarlane brought a frat-boy sensibility to “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” with depressing results. Now David and Nathan Zeller try a quirky, off-kilter approach, sort of Coen Brothers on the sagebrush, and while the result offers a few chuckles, its leisurely, deadpan tone grows wearisome. By the end it’s the movie, rather than the titular damsel, that’s in distress.
The title itself is a joke, upending the notion that the female in the narrative always needs saving. In this case that’s the presumption for the first hour or so, but it turns out to be far from the truth: Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) may be pretty, but when she’s finally discovered, she proves to be no shrinking violet.
The focus of the picture’s first half is instead lovelorn Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson), a dapper but weirdly off-kilter dude not unlike a goofy version of Destry, who arrives in the dusty territory by boat, with a crate that, once opened, contains a miniature horse named Butterscotch. Proceeding with it to a dreary little town, he finds a drunken parson (David Zellner), whom he gets into shape to ride into the wilderness with him. The parson will preside over his wedding to Penelope, the woman he loves. She, he claims, was kidnapped by a ruffian named Cornell who dragged her off and is, Samuel claims, holding her prisoner.
The precise identity of the preacher is a bit of a mystery. In a prologue, we’re shown an elderly, grizzled parson (Robert Forster) sitting disconsolately at a stagecoach stop in the middle of the desert, planning to return east after a disappointing stint trying to convert Indians. After explaining his disillusionment he abruptly tosses off his clothes and hands them over to a young easterner going west, along with a Bible with a chunk of its pages torn out, before running off. Samuel’s parson is wearing a similar outfit and carrying that very Bible. So the larger story might be a flashback to Forster’s past, or a flash-forward to what the easterner experiences after putting on the preacher’s clothes and taking up his role. You could argue either way.
In any event, Zellner’s parson is shocked to discover that he’s committed to a mission to rescue the woman rather than just to marry her to Alabaster: it’s not a duty he relishes, but Samuel’s doe-eyed earnestness, along with his promise of a handsome payment, persuades him to continue the trek. It’s relatively uneventful, except when they encounter Cornell’s roughneck brother Rufus (Nathan Zellner). But Alabaster apparently chases him off a cliff to his death.
Much more eventful is what transpires when Alabaster and the parson arrive at Cornell’s cabin. The nervous parson does something totally unanticipated, and Penelope turns out to be faithful, like her Homeric namesake, but not in quite the way you might expect. Long story short, after a fraught reunion with Samuel, she and the parson will find themselves journeying to civilization on their own, their process interrupted by the reappearance of Rufus, not dead after all, and much more amusingly, by the arrival of Zacharia (the late Joseph Billingiere), a cultured Indian who takes offense at misconceptions about his people.
“Damsel” doesn’t so much end as simply peter out, but then it’s been moseying along for the entire running-time. The pacing is the very opposite of breakneck, and while that gives Pattinson, in particular, the room to add all sorts of decorative little touches to his performance, it doesn’t bring much excitement to the tale; Wasikowska contributes some spice to the mix when she turns up, but her turn is more a single-note affair. Neither of the Zellner brothers proves much of an actor—David seems especially ill-at-ease—leaving the relatively brief appearances of Forster and Billingiere among the film’s few real highlights.
On the other hand, the picture looks great from a purely visual standpoint. The locations, not just the Utah desert and vistas but the Oregon coast where Samuel originally comes ashore, are quite lovely, and DP Adam Stone makes the most of them in his glossy widescreen images. Scott Kuzio’s production design and Terry Anderson’s costumes are aces for a small-budget feature, and the music score by The Octopus Project adds a funky flavor to the mix.
“Damsel” has its moments. Too bad there aren’t enough of them, and that the space between them is often pretty vacant.