A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST Movie Review – Rude, Crude, MacFarlane
Here’s (almost) everything you need to know about Seth MacFarlane’s scattershot Western spoof (his second as director), A Million Ways to Die in the West: It’s big. It’s broad. It’s crude, rude, vulgar, and borderline offensive (minus the “border” or the “line”). A Million Ways to Die in the West is sporadically, fitfully funny, repeatedly relying on a low-brow mix of gross-out gags, lazily scripted, expletives, anachronistic dialogue, gory, blood-splattered slapstick (hence the unfortunate title that over-promises and under-delivers), celebrity cameos, and trite, stale pop-culture jokes. In short, A Million Ways to Die in the West is another sub-mediocre, pedestrian Seth MacFarlane effort (he co-wrote, directed, produced, and stars in A Million Ways to Die in the West) through and through. A Million Ways to Die in the West is also the equivalent of a barely tolerable 22-minute TV episode of one of MacFarlane’s endlessly lucrative series (Family Guy, American Dad) stretched an interminable, bloated two-hour running time.
When we first meet MacFarlane’s character, Albert Stark, an exceptionally unexceptional sheep farmer, he’s trying to talk himself out of a gunfight he knows he’s going to lose. He convinces his opponent to take money as compensation for Albert’s sheep straying (and grazing) on to the second man’s land, but his cowardice makes him a joke to the townspeople of Old Stump, Arizona, and a love reject when his superficial girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), gives him the “I need to work on myself” speech before slipping into the slick arms and even slicker mustache of one Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), a man who makes a lucrative living running a shop dedicated to the manifold wonders of the male mustache. Stark’s best friend, Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), a devout Christian engaged to one of the town’s busiest prostitutes, Ruth (Sarah Silverman), remains by his side, but no one else does.
Stark’s declining fortunes take a turn for the better when he saves Anna (Charlize Theron), a newcomer to Old Stump, from a bar fight. Albert’s unexpected act of heroism, his nice guy persona, and sarcastic sense of humor win her over (we know we’re in a Seth MacFarlane production when a character like Anna, played by an Oscar-winning actress like Charlize Theron, falls for Albert with minimal effort). Anna, however, harbors a secret: She’s the long-suffering wife of the territory’s most feared outlaw/fast gun in the West, Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson). What plot there is initially centers on Anna taking Albert under her wing to ready him for a gunfight with Foy over Louise, Anna and Albert spending quality time together on and off a makeshift gun range (multiple sunsets and montages are involved), and Clinch’s eventual arrival in Old Stump to reclaim Anna from Albert (necessitating another yet another gun duel).
The promise explicit in the title – of moviegoers witnessing a gruesome, if blackly comic, cavalcade of inventively staged deaths – never really comes to pass. The trailers and TV ads spoil two of the best gags (the giant block, the country fair stampede), leaving the remainder to pale in comparison, presumably because McFarlane and his co-screenwriters, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild forgot the title or got bored with it. Given the scatter shot nature of the jokes and gags, the former seems more likely as an explanation. Some gags come uncomfortably close to offensive, like one involving gay stereotypes, but they’re just as much evidence of MacFarlane and his co-writers’ laziness as they are intentionally offensive. MacFarlane digs deep into his pile of lowbrow humor only to find standard-issue fart and diarrhea jokes. Digs at Christianity, specifically Ruth and her contradictory behavior (she’s a whore who’s also saving herself for marriage), also aim low and never build to anything meaningful, insightful, or subversive.
MacFarlane makes for a dour leading man, too modern-looking and too limited as an actor. When in doubt, MacFarlane relies on the many minutes of lessons gleaned from the Furrowed Brow School of Acting. Theron doesn’t embarrass herself, but she doesn’t acquit herself either, a function of a poorly written character (she’s usually the straight woman to MacFarlane’s joke man) and Theron’s relative inexperience in comedy. Supporting players fare better, including Giovanni Ribisi, proving himself adept at the nuances of comic timing, and the ever game Liam Neeson, performing well within his comfort zone, but obviously enjoying himself. Michael Barrett’s lush, classic Western-inspired cinematography deserves points for effort and execution while Joel McNeely’s score gives A Million Ways to Die in the West the proper bombast. Unfortunately, the credit stops there. MacFarlane may have wanted to make this/his generation’s Blazing Saddles, but he failed, maybe not miserably, but not happily either.