The new Netfl ix Western anthology film from Joel and Ethan Coen, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, is the best Western comedy since 1969’s Blazing Saddles, which is to say it’s the best Western comedy in half a century. And unlike Blazing Saddles (1969), Three Amigos, Rustler’s Rhapsody, A Million Ways Do Die in the West, et al, Scruggs is not a parody of Western movies. It is a series of Western stories seen through the distinctively quirky prism of the Coens.
The short scripts were written over a period of over 20 years, and only the last, “The Mortal Remains,” was written after the film deal with Netfl ix was made. The other five were penned randomly over the years, and are presented in order of creation, the first, “Buster Scruggs,” being the broadest.
Frequent Coen collaborator Tim Blake Nelson is delightful as the title character, a cheerful singing cowboy who behaves much more like a Lee Marvin character than a Gene Autry one.
James Franco is a would-be bank robber in “Near Algodones,” which has some nods to Sergio Leone without becoming homage. “Meal Ticket” features Liam Neeson as a small-time theatrical impresario, traveling from town to town, passing the hat after his artist, an armless and legless man (Harry Melling) performs beautiful dramatic readings. The problem is, what to do when the hat comes back empty?