– Summary –
Director : Seth MacFarlane
Year Of Release : 2014
Principal Cast : Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman, Christopher Hagen, Wes Studi, Rex Linn, Alex Borstein, Ralph Garman, John Aylward, Evan Jones.
Approx Running Time : 116 Minutes
Synopsis: A meek, loser-ish man living in the old west courts the estranged wife of a local legendary outlaw.
What we think : Too long by about 20 minutes, A Million Ways To Die In The West skirts the level of abysmal and only just keeps itself from toppling over. While there are several decent laughs to be found, they’re too few and far between, while the balance between the “olde timey” tone and the “modern pop-culture” language feels too strained to truly satisfy. Juvenile and unsubtle, Million Ways is largely mediocre and crass to the point of inanity.
A Million Ways To Die of Embarrassment.
Like him, love him or loathe him, there’s no denying one-man-band actor/writer/producer/director Seth MacFarlane, one-time Oscars host and vocal lead on Family Guy, is something of a Hollywood wunderkind. Although often scorned for his juvenile humor and an innate inability to look like he’s doing anything other than pinching off a loaf, MacFarlane’s parlayed his small-screen success (including hosting Comedy Central’s Roast shows on a regular basis) into big-screen permission, as he tries to drag his teenage-boy sense of humor across from American Dad and into films like Ted and now this, A Million Ways To Die In The West. While Ted succeeded almost in spite of itself, thanks to a genuine performance by Mark Wahlberg, and a nicely rendered CG teddy bear, Million Ways places MacFarlane, an unproven screen performer, dead-center for its story, and coupled with MacFarlane’s job of directing, writing and producing this thing, the balance of humor, pathos and technical competency was always going to be key for the film to really leave its mark. So how does Million Ways fare, in spite of MacFarlane’s involvement? Is it destined to be a classic Western-themed comedy, like The Alamo or Unforgiven, or is it a gargantuan misfire destined to consign ol’ Seth to the bargain bin of Hollywood crash-n-burn victims?
Albert (Seth MacFarlane) is a no-hoper sheep farmer in the Old West. He lives with his parents, and has just been dumped by his selfish girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried), who is now seeing local moustachier Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). After a period of self-loathing, Albert decides to win her back with the help of new-in-town Anna (Charlize Theron), who, unbeknownst to anyone, is the wife of regional outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), who himself is due to arrive in town in the next week. As Albert and Anna start to become close, and the time of Clinch’s arrival becomes more imminent, the stage looks set for a showdown of immensely comedic proportions.
Ruined by overexposure during its promotional campaign, A Million Ways To Die In The West dies on the screen thanks to far too much time taken ambling between all the laughs. If you’ve seen any of the trailers for this film, you’ll have seen the best of this film; it’s a sad fact that in order to get people to watch a movie, the filmmakers (or studio) often insist on taking the best bits and giving away the gold to audiences in the advertising. Disappointingly, the trailers for this film spoil all the actual quality humor (which is saying something), leaving the remains of Million Ways to stumble, trip, and ultimately plunge into a pool of mediocrity.
The film’s primary fault is with its director, Seth MacFarlane, who put himself front-and-center for this one as actor, helmer, producer, writer and probably caterer (I didn’t read that far into the credits, to be honest); blaming him for the movie’s shortcomings is entirely legitimate. MacFarlane isn’t a leading man, much less a supporting actor, with his Blandy McBlanderson performance ability eliciting almost zero emotional response thanks to what appears to be his Botox-afflicted facial structures. He plays the goofball smart-ass sheep farmer with a modicum of restraint, although his character veers wildly between what is established in the opening scenes, and the kind of modern overly exaggerated material one might find lurking in an Adam Sandler comedy. Which, come to think of it, mirrors the tone of the entire film; I’m all for smothering a classic genre such as a Western with the flippant, zany pop-culture throwbacks of today, but MacFarlane inserts far too many dick, fart, boob, vagina, semen and poo jokes for my liking, throwing the film’s sentimental undercurrent well into chaos. I couldn’t figure out if this film was a spoof, an homage, or just an outright circle-jerk to the genre.
Thankfully, the cast all gamely carry on with this farce, particularly Neil Patrick Harris, who delights in silly, effeminate characters such as Foy, although watching a quality actor of his style spend three full minutes shitting into a hat to get a few gross-out laughs borders on deplorable. Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman draw some minor chuckles as a timid local and the local prostitute respectively, with a running gag about not having sex before they’re married because they’re “both Christians” landing flatter than a dropped cat, and Ribisi’s ineptitude at sexual activity is amusing in fitful spurts (ha!); independent of them, however, the film relies mainly on MacFarlane’s sarcastic lamentations about how shitty the Old West is (or was). Liam Neeson seems to be having the most fun, though, as chief Bad Guy with a enormously flattering name (Clinch Leatherwood, which sounds a lot like a name Clint Eastwood might use instead of Alan Smithee, if he ever needed to), as he snarls and stomps through the story causing problems for Albert and Anna.
The film is blessed with a large number of cameos, ranging from a betcha-can’t-spot-him Ewan McGregor, to a last minute credit sequence appearance of a popular Tarantino character, as well as one of the greatest movie in-joke references ever (thanks to one of the best cameo appearances ever!), all of which provide some externally produced amusement if nothing else. A sequence where Albert drinks some Indian peyote, and finds himself tripping out, is particularly amusing, and nods to classic Western genre touchstones are scattered throughout (a line about songwriter Stephen Foster actually made me laugh out loud), but it’s just too jumbled and loosely strung together to work as well as it could. A musical number about having a mustache is well done, however, and I admit that it will probably be funnier after a few re-watches (if I can be bothered).
A Million Ways To Die In The West runs the gamut of observational, sly humor, mainly surrounding the fact that the West was a terrible place to live (and die). The film feels too slowly paced, particularly during its crawling second half, and the subplot with Ribisi and Silverman takes up too much screen time going nowhere, while MacFarlane and Charlize Theron have a nice enough chemistry (mainly thanks to Theron, it must be said) to kick the romance angle in just in time. It’s all a bit too much hard work, liking this film, even with a ripping western score by Joel McNeely, who evokes the period and the place with ease. But juxtaposing jokes about anal sex with the wide expanses of Monument Valley (where John Ford shot many a classic Western) seems too crass to really work other than as a simplistic gross-out comedy, and considering the film tries to inject actual pathos into the story, the lack of care by MacFarlane to go either way with any definition brings the whole thing undone.
Look, the bottom line is this: there are people out there who will think this film is the funniest Western since Blazing Saddles, or maybe City Slickers, but the truth of the matter is that A Million Ways To Die In The West isn’t really that hilarious. Unless poo and sex jokes are your thing, in which case listening to a man fart bodily fluid out of his penis, or watching a sheep get an erection will no doubt hospitalize you from splitting your sides. Generally lame, largely unbalanced with scattered laughs (and a couple of gut-busting cameos), and filled with MacFarlane’s trademark style of humor, A Million Ways is forgettable, mediocre film-making with little to offer other than a stunning backdrop.