A Million Ways to Die in the West, Seth MacFarlane’s eagerly-anticipated follow-up to his 2012 hit Ted, should really have been titled “A Million Ways to Gross Out Audiences in a Western.” Playing to the lowest common denominator in terms of his target audience, this spoof on classic 50’s style westerns has a few great laughs here and there, but mainly just drags from one cringe-inducing gross gag to the next. For fans of MacFarlane’s live-action cartoon style of writing/film making, it’s probably a must-see, but if you’re looking for comedy written for anyone with maturity beyond that of your average American middle schooler, look elsewhere.
MacFarlane plays Albert Stark, a sheep farmer living in 1889 Arizona who is, as he constantly reminds us, terribly ill-suited for life in the West. He’s a talker, not a fighter, he has no idea how to tend to his sheep, can’t shoot accurately to save his life, and spends most of his nights whining about how awful the West is to his buddy Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and Edward’s hooker-with-a-heart girlfriend Ruth (Sarah Silverman). After his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him for Foy, the pompous owner of the town moustacherie (Neil Patrick Harris), Albert feels like he’s at the end of his rope, but his salvation literally rides into town in the form of Anna (Charlize Theron), a beautiful and mysterious stranger who knows how to handle a gun, is bored by barroom brawls and gunfighters, and like Albert hates everything about life on the frontier.
After a chance encounter during a dust-up in the town’s one saloon, Albert and Anna bond, and after hearing of Albert’s broken heart Anna decides to help the hapless sheep farmer win back his wayward best gal. But the kindred spirits soon have more trouble on their hands as Anna’s past comes back to haunt her in the form of the West’s most dangerous gunfighter, Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson). If he hopes to hold on to his newfound connection to Anna and save his own hide, Albert will have to survive Clinch and also killer town fairs, singing moustache groomers, hostile Native Americans bearing hallucinogenic drugs, and just about every way to die he’s ever been afraid of in his life, and he’ll have to learn how to shoot without harming himself in the process.
If that all sounds uproariously funny to you, then it’s likely you’ll enjoy at least some of how it plays out on screen. MacFarlane makes no effort whatsoever to adapt his signature style, which blends the classic cartoon-writing sensibility he learned from his years writing for Hanna-Barbera with contemporary pop-culture savvy snark and in-your-face crudeness, to the film genre it arguably least fits. The idea here apparently is to mine that incongruity of style and genre for laughs and create a spoof that pushes the envelope in terms of outrageousness in the same way that Ted did and “Family Guy” continues to do.
Unfortunately, the whole “Man, the West really sucks” idea wears thin early in the film. Indeed, MacFarlane lets Albert drunkenly expound on all the reasons it sucks within the film’s first twenty minutes in what turns out to be one of the film’s cleverest moments, and from that point on every gruesome death we’re treated to seeing just feels like the writer supporting his thesis. If you didn’t get the point after the whiny diatribe, you will after the third or fourth gory demise.
What does work in the movie is the majority of the other running gags featuring the supporting players — Albert’s dad’s “tough love” parenting, Edward’s very accepting attitude toward Ruth’s profession and the fact that they themselves don’t have a sex life, and just about every time Neil Patrick Harris’s Foy is in a scene, as he sports a waxed handlebar mustache as a sample of his trade that just demands that you giggle whenever you see it. His musical number (Yes!) is far catchier than it has any right to be, and it will be tough to get out of your head long after the movie’s over.
Also worthy of mention here is Charlize Theron, who is effortlessly charming as Albert’s perfect match, competent and confident in all the ways Albert isn’t, and Liam Neeson, who looks like he’s having fun playing the film’s requisite mean and murderous black hat with a silly name. He’s one of the few people in this production that actually looks and sounds like he belongs in a western, and it makes you wish they’d given him more to do in the script. In addition, the numerous cameos in the film by performers we either equate with westerns or with Seth MacFarlane films are very memorable, although arguably the funniest of them has already been spoiled by the film’s TV marketing. Somebody over at Universal Pictures marketing and promotions deserves a serious talking to about that one.
All in all, what MacFarlane gives us here is something that no doubt was a lot more hilarious in his own mind than it ends up being in execution. If his goal was to give audiences a Blazing Saddles or a Rustler’s Rhapsody for the 21st Century, then his efforts should fall far short of the mark. If, on the other hand, he just wanted to make a western parody that he knew would make the real-life Peter Griffins of the world that love everything that he does howl and cry out for more, then most likely mission accomplished.
Score: 2 out of 5
A Million Ways to Die in the West
Starring Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Giovanni Ribisi, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman and Liam Neeson. Directed by Seth MacFarlane.
Running Time: 116 minutes
Rated R for strong crude and sexual content, language throughout, some violence and drug material.
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