MOVIE REVIEW: ‘A Million Ways To Die In The West’

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Film: A Million Ways to Die in The West
Directed by: Seth MacFarlane
Starring: Charlize Theron, Seth MacFarlane, Liam Neeson, Amanda Seyfried

The old frontier; a time and place ripe with tumbleweeds, gunslingers, cholera, and dick jokes? Seth MacFarlane creator/writer/director/actor of such comedies as TV’s Family Guy and 2012’s buddy comedy Ted brings his familiar brand of raunchy comedy and pop culture referential humor to his second feature creative effort with A Million Ways to Die in The West. Unfortunately, like most of MacFarlane’s projects, his finished product is only an amalgam of witticisms that sometime produce laughs but for the most part fall flat.

A Million Ways to Die in The West follows sheep farmer, Albert (MacFarlane), who after the breakup with his long time girlfriend, Louise (Seyfried), finds himself directionless. With the arrival of a mysterious and beautiful woman, Anna (Theron), Albert learns to stand up for himself. Naturally, his ex-beau hooks up with a much wealthier and well-groomed moustache connoisseur, Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). With the help of Anna, his bible-thumping best friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), and Edward’s prostitute of a fiancée, Ruth (Sarah Silverman), Albert gets his second wind that he needed in life. Of course, scatological jokes, drug abuse to comedic chagrin, film references, and bouts of physical pantomime follow in what can only be described as a bunch of comedic vignettes tied together by a tired old plot filled with familiar tropes.

One huge obstacle that this film, even every comedy, must overcome is getting the farcical timing to a tee. A Million Ways to Die in The West at a small multitude of points makes the argument that it can hobble over that hurdle but all in all, like most of the jokes, it crashes and burns into slogging mediocrity. The film answers the question of, “How many times can we see MacFarlane’s character fall drunkenly before we get tired of it?” Unfortunately, the answer is not too many.

If I were judging this film in 30-minute segments, like MacFarlane’s TV efforts, I would probably give the pacing a little more slack. That isn’t the case though. At 116 minutes, I was waiting for the next gut-buster to come but many a time, it never did. With MacFarlane’s sort of schtick, his material is almost built for short and sustained bursts of laughter. In this film and Ted, he is tasked to find an interesting story to tie together those little moments of comedic clarity. Regrettably, that story is reduced to Hollywood conventions like ‘unlikely hero grows a pair’ and even the timeless ‘hero gets the girl and rides off into the sunset.’ Both of those facets are extremely accessible to make fun of as most westerns fall into that tradition. Instead of taking that risk to delineate from the norm, we get an extremely tired-out story trying to be held up by the film’s criminally underused comedic cast.

A Million Ways to Die in The West relies heavily on a slew of actors/actresses that are both equal parts well-versed in comedy and unfamiliar to the genre. Most of Liam Neeson’s material as the typical bad-guy gunslinger archetype produces no laughs. Why not make the character a villain with a terrifying fear of tumbleweeds? That would suffice for his particular moments of droll line reciting (with his native Irish accent, to boot).

MacFarlane actually makes an argument that he can play the main character, just not with the material he wrote. We get it; the character is the lame duck of the town, stop berating us with reasons to support the fact. There are only so many times that we can watch his character fumble over his words and actions until we get tired of it. Charlize Theron, a highlight in mostly every bad film she is in, is reduced to the femme fatale and main love interest to MacFarlane’s character. Having never starred in a film like this, Theron proves that she has as much comedic gravity if not more than MacFarlane.

If there were any scene-stealer in the film, it would be Neil Patrick Harris. As the least-threatening and somewhat flamboyant new boyfriend to Louise, he proves that he can produce laughs from the most juvenile and uninspired sheep jokes. On the other hand though, Harris seems to be playing a version of his character from How I Met Your Mother, complete with that role’s catchphrases. This just goes to show that A Million Ways to Die in The West is totally uninterested with building new comedic characters because instead, the writers can just play off much more culturally known and redundantly used personas. MacFarlane is famous for his use of cameos in his projects and in most situations they produce some very good laughs. But in this, it’s like the creative team is trying to lead the viewer away from how soporific the rest of the film is.

One sequence in particular, when MacFarlane’s character is tripping on some Indian hallucinogenic, delves into the obscurity that I was begging for this film to have in its entirety. Calling back to visuals only achievable by auteurs like Terry Gilliam and Gaspar Noé, the audience is treated to a weirdly fun trip down the rabbit hole.

The film’s score composed by Joel McNeely is one of the only things that is left untarnished after the credits roll. Taking cues from films like Blazing Saddles and Back to The Future: Part III, McNeely’s score hops and trots along to the upbeat tone that most of the film tries to inhabit. A well-done score can sometimes pick up a film where it is lacking, and in this case the score comes out being much more memorable than the whole motion picture.

The biggest question I was asking before I sat down to watch A Million Ways was, “How racy will MacFarlane get with his jokes?” Naturally, that is another reason that I was turned away from the film. Making fun of someone’s ethnicity/beliefs is a very thin line to walk on and in this, it was crossed. It’s hard to explain without going into specifics but a whole Middle Eastern culture may be revolted at one joke in particular.

All in all, A Million Ways to Die in The West gives only a few reasons to stick around until the end credits and a million ways not to.

GRADE: D+

Review written by Sam Cohen — (Follow him on Twitter)

Sam Cohen

Sam Cohen is that guy you can't have a conversation with without bringing up Michael Mann. He is also incapable of separating himself from his teenage angst (looking at you, Yellowcard). Read on as he tries to formulate words about movies!
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