A Million Ways to Die in the West
Directed by Seth MacFarlane. Starring Charlize Theron, Seth MacFarlane, Amanda Seyfried, Liam Neeson, Neil Patrick Harris, Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman, Wes Studi, Evan Jones, Rex Linn, Tatanka Means, Alex Borstein. Written by Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, Wellesley Wild.
There’s just one problem with Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West: it isn’t very funny. This 112-minute comedy is filled with some scattershot lowbrow and gross-out humor, but between every few gags (not all of which hit) are minutes-long comedic dead zones.
And yet, I still found the film appealing, and even strangely endearing: this is a full-blooded (in more ways than one) Western that pokes fun at the genre but also thrives in recreating a good old-fashioned B-movie oater. Family Guy fans (and, admittedly, most audiences) may be turned off by the lack of guffaws, but I genuinely appreciated the level of technical craft that has gone into the making of the film.
The concept is a one-joke affair: despite the traditional cinematic portrayal of life on the frontier, the Old West was a dangerous place to live, underlined here by the gory deaths that randomly litter the screen. Of course, this loving parody – which thrives on Western movie clichés – isn’t going to turn our Western world upside down; we’ll have to wait for the long-anticipated adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian for that.
There aren’t quite a million ways to die in Seth MacFarlane’s West; more like a dozen-plus. And if you’ve seen the trailer for the movie, you’ve seen most of them. It’s a strange premise to hang the film around, and every time we cut away to a giant block of ice crushing a man, a flashbulb setting a photographer on fire, or a raging bull impaling a fairgoer, I rolled my eyes; one or two of these scenes makes a subversive point, but there’s little comedy value in an endless parade of catastrophe.
No matter: the rest of the film has more to offer. MacFarlane stars as Albert Stark, a cowardly sheep farmer who opens the film by trying to talk his way out of a midday duel. His girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried, eyes as wide as ever) isn’t impressed, and leaves him later that day because she “needs to work on herself”.
A common theme here is the modern-day perspective on Old West happenings, and MacFarlane serves as our sarcastic guide through the clichés: his Albert might as well be a time traveler experiencing the life on the frontier for the first time. In his first big role, the director makes for a likable if bland lead; one can imagine a young, nebbish Woody Allen running away with this kind of thing.
Still, MacFarlane is appealing enough; so is Charlize Theron, who stars as love interest Anna Leatherwood. But Liam Neeson, as Anna’s husband Clinch Leatherwood, effortlessly steals the show. Neeson plays the part completely straight – he doesn’t utter a single joke throughout the film, while maintaining his thick Irish brogue – and is all the funnier because of it.
Sarah Silverman and Giovanni Ribisi star as Ruth and Edward, Albert’s only friends in town. Both are talented comedic actors – Ribisi stole Ted as the deadpan villain – but they’re given nothing to work with here outside of a single joke that’s beaten to death in each of their scenes: Ruth doesn’t want to have sex before marriage, despite the fact that she’s a prostitute. Ho-ho! Neil Patrick Harris fares better as Foy, whose one joke (he’s got a mustache!) at least feels a little endearing.
While the humor fails to carry the film through its nearly-two-hour running time, a parade of spot-the-celebrity cameos keeps things interesting. Two of them are terrific, providing the kind of trademark Family Guy pop culture references that the rest of the film lacks due to its setting.
Blazing Saddles set the standard for Western comedy back in 1974, and 40 years later MacFarlane doesn’t quite match it; that film still feels fresh and funny and edgy, while A Million Ways to Die in the West – despite all the gore and sexually explicit dialogue – merely feels amiable.
But while I was surprised at how few laughs the film contains, I was equally surprised by the craft that went into its production. There’s a horseback chase sequence that goes on for about five minutes or so – and begins with a quick reference to John Ford’s The Searchers – that doesn’t contain a single comedic element – but it’s genuinely well-shot and staged, with some impressive stuntwork, and is exciting enough in its own right. A Million Ways to Die in the West may not have succeeded as intended, but it still managed to leave me with a smile on my face.