The surprising thing about Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West is how devoted to the genre it actually is. While I can only think of so many western comedies offhand, there are plenty of ways to turn the genre on its head and have a lot of fun with it. MacFarlane is happy to dive into that well, but while making fun of the genre, he appears to really respect it. The issue then becomes how to make a film that looks like a western and sounds like a western into a film that is entertaining for the audiences showing up, based on the goodwill created by Ted or Family Guy. Unfortunately, while MacFarlane is known for his comedic abilities, the laughs are not nearly strong enough to go along with a film that admirably spends its time on recreating the feel of a western, while rooting itself in character.
Albert: The American West is a terrible place in time. Everything out here that is not you wants to kill you.
Set in 1882 Arizona, MacFarlane stars as Albert Stark, a sheep farmer who is fed up with living in the west. He has no courage, was recently dumped by his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried), and couldn’t shoot the broadside of a barn if he tried. The film features a number of other characters, including Charlize Theron as Ana, a fun-loving gunslinger, who is secretly married to infamous outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson). Giovanni Ribisi steps in as Albert’s best friend Edward, a virgin with a longtime girlfriend, Ruth (Sarah Silverman) who is one of the best prostitutes in town. And then there’s Neil Patrick Harris as Foy, Louise’s new boyfriend, who runs the Moustachery. The plotting basically amounts to Albert finding his courage and facing up to the challenges of living in the American West.
An issue I did not have with this film was its anachronistic tone. While set in the old west and fitted with plenty of references, sets, costumes, etc. that provide the look and feel of a western, characters talk as if they were from modern times. Given the style of the humor, this was not something that bothered me. Clearly MacFarlane wanted to have fun going over all the ways in which the west can be made fun of for what it was in satirical fashion. I believe that stems from an admiration for this time period in terms of what some would call ‘glory’ days, when the other side of the coin does in fact indicate how difficult a time it was to live in. Not helping this much is the way the film has little interest in turning these jokes into much more than MacFarlane ranting about why the west sucks, before moving on to something else.
While the film is a western comedy, it is also a bit of a fish out of water story, a romantic comedy, an adventure film, and a pure western. It is all over the place in terms of the types of films it wants to be, but it is not nearly entertaining enough to keep audiences engaged. Much of this comes from the decisions MacFarlane has made as a director. ‘A Million Ways’ is paced very much like an old fashioned western, where you could replace the action and ‘cool’ moments with jokes. They are spread out in favor of keeping the world of the film alive. This results in some clear consequences, despite effort to make a good-looking movie.
It is strange, because there is a lot that I admire about this film. It has an entire opening credit sequence that is beautiful. Sweeping shots of open vistas, as the names of the cast and crew appear in big, bold, colorful lettering on the screen. The score by Joel McNeely is completely fitting of a classic western. Plenty of attention is paid to getting the aesthetic right. It also has moments that are fairly clever, without seeming like too much of a non sequitur. It is a shame that the best gags have been given away in all the trailers for this film and most of the other jokes never really register as hilarious (other than some hardcore comic violence that seems to always make me smile). The worst thing a comedy can do is not make one laugh and while this film is certainly not devoid of humor, it is not packing nearly enough punch as seen in some of the bar brawls in this film, let alone some of MacFarlane’s previous work.
A lot of interest I had in this film was based on my appreciation for Seth MacFarlane’s Ted. While I grew out of really enjoying Family Guy years ago, I was impressed by how much I enjoyed what Ted had to offer; both as a joke machine and as a well-made film (it too has an impressive score, among other things). A Million Ways to Die in the West is actually stranger than the story of a talking Teddy Bear, due to what MacFarlane seems to be wanting to do, which is make a film that is a western and character-focused story first, a comedy second…if not third. It is almost as if he is throwing in the more raunchy humor (and a wonderful musical number), because that is what is expected of him, but he really wants to deal with relatable characters that happen to be in a western.
As the lead, with no animals or CG creations to hide behind, MacFarlane is fine. It is his chemistry with Charlize Theron that obviously works, but that can only go so far to make a film with a simple plot very entertaining. The rest of the cast are decent enough and it will largely depend on one’s own sense of humor. For the most part, I found Neil Patrick Harris to be pretty hilarious. Silverman is fine, though there is not much else to the joke of having sex with everyone, but her boyfriend. Liam Neeson plays a convincing outlaw (with a broad Irish accent), though it is clear his presence goes with the serious western this film wants to be, over the outrageous comedy that this film just isn’t.
There are also basic filmmaking issues as well. As much as I admire MacFarlane for wanting to try something different, he does make a film that is needlessly long, given the extra plotting that drags things out. Some of the punchlines do not land nearly as hard as they should either. It is all unfortunate and a bit disappointing, because this is an original comedy with a solid cast that pretty much misses the mark, despite having so much good around it and the occasional big laugh. I can only hope that MacFarlane finds a genre or a style of film he wants to do next that is more focused on what he wants to do as a filmmaker, rather than mixing that with his need to pander.
Anna: People die at the fair.