Let me preface this review by stating that I was not a fan of Ted nor am I a fan of Family Guy. I generally don’t think it’s essential to let readers know where I stand with creators when discussing their latest work. However, Seth MacFarlane is such a divisive figure that I think it’s fair to inform you all that his humor doesn’t necessarily sync up with mine. That being said, I enjoy when a movie surprises me with an actor or filmmaker’s previously unseen talents.
A Million Ways To Die In The West is not that film.
Set in 1882, A Million Ways To Die In The West features Seth MacFarlane as a triple threat. Triple as in he is the star-writer-director and threat as in he is inflicting this movie on a public who believed in him enough to make Ted a half-billion dollar worldwide hit. As cowardly frontier sheep farmer Albert, he is dating the comely Louise (Amanda Seyfried) until she dumps him for being a loser and moves onto small business owner Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). Meanwhile, notorious outlaw Clinch (Liam Neeson) is off doing some outlawin’ and sends his wife Anna (Charlize Theron) to Albert’s town, where the two strike up a relationship … much to Clinch’s chagrin. MacFarlane regular Giovanni Ribisi is on board as Albert’s friend Edward, as well as Sarah Silverman as Edward’s girlfriend, the prostitute Ruth.
The Western comedy has a long tradition, which makes sense considering how the Western genre was among the first to hit it big, even in the silent film days. Arguably the best known of this genre is Mel Brooks’s comedy classic Blazing Saddles. More recently, The Thrilling Adventure Hour, an ongoing podcast series paying homage to radio serials of yesteryear, has been beaming the space-western “Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars” to listening devices for nigh on three years. Why those succeed (and why A Million Ways fails) is appreciation of the genre. The audience gets a sense that the writers and actors from those other works understand the beats of the Western while also possessing a desire to play around in that world. Despite modern sensibilities, those works feel genuinely Western. Their anachronisms heighten the relationship between the old and the new, yet they never feel totally out of place or overbearing.
A Million Ways doesn’t feel deliberately anachronistic as much as it plays lazy. Most of the script (co-written by regular MacFarlane contributors Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild) seems like the first draft of any generic modern romantic comedy. The characters are loosely drawn, emotions and jokes are repeated and obvious, and nothing deviates from the expected– particularly dangerous for a comedy. The main thing that makes it a Western (other than set design) is that Albert gets to complain about how much the frontier sucks – it’s dirty, it’s smells, there’s rattlesnakes, etc. As with its forerunners, the rare good jokes in A Million Ways are the ones that play to the tropes rather than acting superior to them. (Without spoiling anything, the best gags in this movie involve the fate of the mayor and the presence of a one dollar bill.) Disappointingly, I never got the sense that MacFarlane enjoyed the idea of being part of the glorious Western tradition.
Strangely enough, A Million Ways borrows more heavily from another genre, one that seems a lot more up the director’s alley: the 1980s teen comedy. The uptight girlfriend who dumps the protagonist for being weak. The new weird girl who comes into town and gives him confidence while he pines for his lost love before realizing that the new girl is the woman of his dreams. A couple of cocky bad guys. And a final confrontation where the hero bests the villain at his own game of manliness and physicality through wits and cunning. We’re talking Better Off Dead … and a million other movies. This is an era and genre that MacFarlane has shown great appreciation for throughout his entire career. Mixing two seemingly disparate genres could work, but this film lacks the zany energy or combination of angst and fun to qualify as an homage. The movie is meandering, but not in that cool, Western way.
Nevertheless, I recognize that considering genres, homages, traditions, and histories are mostly irrelevant when discussing a goofy comedy. The only question that really matters is, “Is it funny?” The short answer is, “No.” The longer answer is, “No, and I don’t think it even tries to be.” Happy Madison films are great examples of movies that at least try to be silly, even if 95% of the time they fall on their face…generally in poop. A Million Ways goes through long stretches where it doesn’t even seem to be attempting jokes. Unless having four-letter words every other line counts as a joke, but the use (or rather the overuse) of profanity in this film is more akin to someone biding time after blanking in a middle of a sentence, or like an adolescent’s ideas of edginess.
When the movie does try, it’s not particularly successful. MacFarlane seems to think that mustaches in the Old West carry with them a lot of humor. Foy owns a mustache shop that sells mustache paraphernalia. Conversations are dedicated to a mustache being a sign of a man’s dominance and wealth. We learn about the necessities of mustache upkeep. There’s even a well-produced and overly choreographed song dedicated to mustaches…repeated twice. Beyond that, there’s a massive poop scene, naturally. And there’s even a pot cookie sequence (haven’t seen enough of those) where the biggest punchline is Albert being fascinated by a sunset. Plus endless amounts of whining and calling era-appropriate things stupid. I have nothing against a neurotic lead character, but the problem comes from MacFarlane himself. As the leading man, he seems more uncomfortable and awkward than Albert does.
Yet this plays to another curious feature of this film. To make up for the lack of gags, much of the movie ends up being Anna telling Albert how great he is. One can enjoy a drinking game (sarsaparilla or whiskey, naturally) with the number of times Anna lets Albert know how Louise made a huge mistake by leaving him, how he’s a catch, and how he has more going for him than anyone else in town. It gets to a point where you wonder how much of this movie plays towards MacFarlane’s own insecurities. Sometimes a cigarillo is just a cigarillo, and other times you’re watching Charlize Theron stroke a writer-director-star’s ego for two hours.
The Verdict: 2 out of 5
A Million Ways To Die in the West is Seth MacFarlane’s first foray into the role of leading man while also writing and directing this “Western” “comedy.” Seeming more like the first draft of a screenplay, it even lacks the overly absurdist or ribald qualities that define his previous works. The movie is at its most fascinating when watching MacFarlane’s seeming lack of confidence as the headliner while constantly telling himself he’s great through the lips of a beautiful woman.