Admittedly, I wasn’t expecting a lot from Seth MacFarlane’s second directorial effort, A Million Ways to Die in the West. Unfortunately, what I got was even worse than I’d imagined.
I’m not the biggest Seth MacFarlane fan. I covered that in my review of Ted a couple of years ago. Except in very rare occasions, though, I don’t go into a movie wanting to hate it. I wanted MacFarlane to win me over, but the majority of jokes and gags in the limp script are telegraphed from a million miles away and just end up not being all that funny. The points at which I actually laughed in this thing were few and far between and some of the better bits were ruined by the trailers. I know MacFarlane needs to get people into the theaters, but why not go the Will Ferrell/Adam McKay route and put a lot of red herring jokes in the trailer, saving the best stuff for the film? That’s what Ferrell and McKay did with the two Anchorman films. You get to laugh at the trailer and then be surprised in the film with just as funny or funnier jokes. The real issue is, a lot of A Million Ways to Die in the West just isn’t that funny. I’ll use Anchorman 2 as an example again—the RV scene was shown in all the trailers and got the biggest laugh from the audience. Then, when I saw the film, even though I’d seen this clip several times in all the trailers, I was literally crying during that scene, it was so funny. Nothing in MacFarlane’s film hit me like that. There are a couple of humorous moments, but they’re nothing that stays with you or stands up to repeat viewings.
The movie’s thin story revolves around Albert (MacFarlane), a lovesick sheep herder who hates living in the West and just got dumped by his girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried). Albert is a professed coward, but stupidly challenges Louise’s new boyfriend, Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), to a gun fight. Luckily for him, a newcomer to town, Anna (Charlize Theron), takes a shine to Albert and decides to help train him. Little does Albert know, Anna is married to Clinch (Liam Neeson), a notorious gunslinger away on a heist. Hilarity is supposed to ensue, but it never gets off the ground.
What the movie really felt like was a stand up bit MacFarlane had about how deadly and stupid it was living in the Old West, stretched over a modern day romantic comedy, stuffed into a western. Nothing in that description meshes together. Add in MacFarlane’s painfully self-aware main character and you end up with a film that just does not work. Several of the characters, especially Albert, come across as modern day people existing outside of the film’s world. The modern speech patterns and colloquialisms constantly took me out of the movie. I thought that it would be a problem after seeing the trailers and it was even worse when I saw the film. Now, one could argue that Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles is the same way, but the difference is, Blazing Saddles is a clever satire, while A Million Ways to Die in the West is just MacFarlane pointing at things and saying, “Hey, isn’t that crazy?” Ultimately, MacFarlane’s script just comes across as lazy writing. Some people may not feel the same way, but to me, it showed that MacFarlane can’t seem to elevate his game above playing to the cheap seats and pointing out the obvious. There is one truly inspired bit in the film involving a reference to another film set in the Old West, but again, it was ruined by appearing in one of the trailers.
The cast does what MacFarlane instructs them to do, which seems to be, “Play yourself as you exist now, just dressed up in the period clothes.” Neeson appears to be the only character who acts like he’s in a western. Sarah Silverman plays a prostitute with highly religious scruples when it comes to her personal relationship with Giovanni Ribisi, who plays Albert’s naïve best friend. Harris is always fun, but apart from a few good scenes, he’s kind of just there on the screen. The film’s score by Joel McNeely is a John Williams pastiche that just made me think of all the better movies I could have been watching, especially towards the end. I will say, though, there are a lot of beautiful shots by Cinematographer Michael Barrett, which made it a nice film to look at.
Overall, A Million Ways to Die in the West just isn’t that funny. MacFarlane is not a great leading man and the script is a mess of competing interests. I was hoping for better, but it looks like MacFarlane only has one gear when it comes to his writing. He tried to go for the satire of Blazing Saddles, when he should have just made a funny western. Scenes that have nothing to do with him commenting on things while in character tended to be the funniest, and he should have stuck with that. Pass on this one. If you want to laugh, see Neighbors.
A Million Ways to Die in the West is in theaters May 30, 2014.