You might think that Seth MacFarlane would be the perfect guy to make the boldest Western comedy since Blazing Saddles. After 40 years there’s still no topping Mel Brooks there in terms of genre parody, historical satire, sharp political incorrectness as social statement or even the lowbrow humors of slapstick, raunch and gross-out gags. But MacFarlane, who tackles all those areas of comedy in his TV series and movies, doesn’t even come close to being Brooks’ successor with his sophomore directorial effort, A Million Ways to Die in the West. What starts out as a funny guide to the Wild West and, as the title suggests, how dangerous that time and place was, the movie nosedives with a foregrounded rom-com plot, an underdeveloped and unnecessary villain and a retread of jokes recycled from the first few minutes.
For an example of that last fault, and this is by far the worst offender, Giovanni Ribisi plays a guy whose girlfriend, played by Sarah Silverman, is a prostitute. She won’t have sex with him, though, because they’re Christians and are waiting for marriage. That’s a fine joke as an introduction to their characters, not terribly original but still played well and to the extreme with Silverman’s trademark smuttiness. But that winds up being their actual narrative arc, their only true purpose in the movie, so the constant bits where she tells him about her day at work and the gags involving what body fluids of her customers are still in her hair for him to find during their dates and even the simple joke about why she’s not sleeping with him are stretched thin for a short film, let alone a feature that’s nearly two hours long.
At least they’re not the main attraction. That’s MacFarlane himself as Albert, a handsome and smart yet inept sheep farmer who in the first scene is weaseling out of a showdown by reasoning with the angry gunslinger on a civil matter. It’s 1882, but Albert is oddly knowledgeable about modern things such as Parkinson’s disease, as if he’s a visitor from the future, and so he’s not so much a coward as sensibly aware of every context of where and when he resides. He talks to his pals (Ribisi and Silverman) as if they’re an audience much of the time, like he should be breaking the fourth wall and explaining frontier life to us directly, but then there wouldn’t be that additional minor thing for those two supporting characters to do outside of discuss ironically not having sex.
Albert is dumped by his own girlfriend, Louise, a prop of a character filled by Amanda Seyfried, because she’s instead in love with a dashing yet dastardly businessman named Foy, who is distinguished by his handlebar mustache even more so than his ability to buy a girl fancy dresses and wrapped candies. Although he’s about as underwritten as anyone in the movie, he is the most memorable because he’s played by Neil Patrick Harris, and that guy can apparently add a spark to even the dullest of parts in the dullest of movies. Along comes Ana (Charlize Theron), a mysterious newcomer in town who befriends Albert and helps him get over the ex and teaches him to shoot in order to face Foy in a gun fight. She’s supposed to be perfect for Albert because she is also cynical, smart, witty, aware and an outsider, though the fact that she has to be a replacement love interest for him is rather counterproductively patriarchal for a movie meaning to poke fun at dated customs of 130 years ago.
Ana is also unfortunately married to the most notorious outlaw in the West, a guy named Clinch who we never learn a single other thing about yet who is represented by a scowling Liam Neeson in a black hat. For most of the movie he’s off somewhere else, probably doing something more interesting than what we see occurring on screen, like maybe using a particular set of skills to rob a train or save his daughter from another band of no-goods. And when he shows up, other characters disappear from the action, because MacFarlane can’t maneuver an ensemble cast any better than his character can herd sheep. All that’s important about Clinch is that he’s mean, in contrast to MacFarlane’s “nice guy.” Character- and plot-wise, A Million Ways to Die in the West is more like a bad teen movie than a Western.
Normally it’s okay to have underwritten characters and plot in a comedy that takes a stab at genre and history the way this one begins to. The jokes, both those working independently of the lampoonery and those in support of it, should be the driving force. Initially, that is the case, but it’s as if MacFarlane (and co-writers Wellesley Wild and Alec Sulkin) ran out of points to make about the Old West really quickly and then let the cliche and overly convoluted plot lead the way while occasionally repeating some jokes visually that he’s already done verbally. He even blows his one good bit about Native Americans early on, and then when some show up about an hour and a half later, the scene consists of terribly familiar comedy dealing with hallucinogenic drugs and a disrespect for culture and language that, again, goes against the socio-historical commentary that MacFarlane sets out with.
MacFarlane is a smart entertainer and comedic talent, and I’m sure he could have filled a 90-minute Western spoof with more quality and humor than is found in A Million Ways to Die in the West. His feature debut, Ted, was an acquired taste for much of its laughs but it was also an effective take on the arrested development genre and commentary on celebrity and nostalgia culture. His second movie is a lazy effort ultimately dependent on diarrhea gags over anything of substance related to its genre, its setting or its own narrative. Not even its cameos have any real value. MacFarlane seems to think just by having a random famous actor in a shot that there’s something funny there. That’s logic we expect from people like Seltzer and Friedberg, not the creator of Family Guy, which at least at one point was one of the freshest, most brilliant comedies of our time.
Not to beat a dead horse, but on top of everything, let me suggest that MacFarlane not physically star in his own movies again. He’s good looking and a decent performer, but there’s something about him that makes the guy feel really out of place on screen. He’s as ill-fitting a showman as Neil Patrick Harris is a perfect one. But, that said, the oddest thing about this movie is that neither of those showmen gets to sing, alone or together. There’s a catchy, sorta funny musical number at the center and Amick Byram performs the ditty, about the greatness of mustaches, and Harris and MacFarlane are barely a part of it and aren’t a part of the song at all. That alone is enough evidence that the movie is altogether wrongheaded, never mind the million other ways it screws up the promise of a new Western comedy classic.
The Upside: The first few minutes are pretty funny, before the early jokes and gags are redone to death as the movie goes on; Harris and Theron are both having a good time with their characters and that translates to their being enjoyable whenever on screen, just in a movie that doesn’t deserve them.
The Downside: The comedy is either stale to begin with or becomes so through their being stretched thin over the course of the movie; and that course is a long one, with the movie having no good reason to be two hours; Seyfried’s character could be an inanimate object; often goes against its own intelligent points for cheap, dumb laughs; I could list a million more problems.
On the Side: There are a few cameos in the movie that I won’t spoil, but then there’s Ewan McGregor, who is basically just a background extra who most of you won’t notice unless you’re looking. He had been filming the Western Jane Got a Gun near the set of A Million Ways to Die in the West and was invited by Theron to simply show up in the crowd one day.