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The mild bunch 

The silly comedy Once Upon a Time in the Midlands arguably qualifies as a both a Western and a mystery. The film takes place in Britain's modern-day industrial midsection, but director Shane Meadow frequently evokes the grand gestures of spaghetti Westerns like Once Upon a Time in the West. A mechanic grips a power drill like a gunslinger at a high noon, while guitars and harmonicas wail on the soundtrack.

The mystery is, exactly, why Midlands relies so heavily on the Western motif, since the plot, concerning the rivalry between two small-time guys over the same indecisive woman, doesn't really justify it. Perhaps Meadows wants to imply that, in our minds, we're all the heroes of our own "movies." But it feels more like just a means for the filmmakers to stay interested in an underwritten story.

Confusingly, Midlands introduces nearly its entire cast at once, as they appear on a daytime talk show. On the show, young mother Shirley (Shirley Henderson) rebuffs the proposal of her dorky longtime boyfriend Dek (Rhys Ifans). Simultaneously in Glasgow, Shirley's estranged husband Jimmy (Robert Carlyle), a petty criminal, sees the show and decides to look up his old ex. Shirley can't make up her mind between dangerous Jimmy and responsible Dek, who head for a showdown.

Dek and Shirley's extended domestic circle include Jimmy's big-mouthed sister (Kathy Burke) and a gaggle of well-fed children, all of whom spend plenty of time flopping on the furniture and watching TV. Most of the performers are natural comics, with Carlyle's rabbity excitability proving especially funny. But the film generates little interest or sympathy for any of the characters except Shirley's daughter (Finn Atkins), who sees Dek as a surrogate dad and may be the most responsible one of the lot.

Midlands' use of Western cliches can be amusing, but the screenplay's jokes are almost entirely duds. Jimmy and his criminal cohorts brawl with a band of clowns, while Dek wrecks his car and must drive a minuscule pink rental. Much of the film seems sadistically devoted to humiliating Dek, and though it ends on a generous note, by then Midlands' guns have long run out of ammo. Opens Dec. 12.

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