Seth MacFarlane is one of the more polarizing personalities currently working in Hollywood. The creator of TV's Family Guy and man behind 2012's very funny and very wrong Ted, MacFarlane typically inspires a 'love him or hate him' reaction from audiences. I typically come down on the love him side, loving Ted and for the most part liking Family Guy. So when I read MacFarlane was working on a comedy film western....well, color me curious. Here's 2014's A Million Ways to Die in the West.
It's 1882 in Arizona and cowardly rancher Albert Stark (MacFarlane) is trying to make the most of his small sheep ranch in the desert. He's dating the pretty, young teacher, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), and even though the wild west life is pretty rough, Albert is pleased....and then he isn't. After he negotiates his way out of a gunfight rather than shoot it out, Albert gets dumped by Louise. He just sort of drifts along afterwards, eventually meeting a new woman in town, Anna (Charlize Theron), who he clicks with very quickly. It isn't long before Albert gets roped into another gunfight with Louise's new man, but that's the least of his problems. Anna isn't telling him everything about who she is and more importantly, who she's married to. Her husband? Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), a bandit and one of the most notorious gunfighters around. Now, Albert is really in for some trouble.
Released in theaters just this past weekend, 'Million' earned over $17 but was still dubbed a disappointment. Reviews were decidedly mixed to negative, and what little word of mouth I heard was....I'll say, less than positive. Nonetheless, I plunged on! It's a comedy western -- which I'm not a huge fan of to begin with -- but it certainly looked like the talent involved had put together a winning product. Andddddddddddddd, yeah, unfortunately that's not the case. This is not a good movie to the point I will even say it is really, really bad. Making it worse, it does have some potential but never amounts to anything other than a winning joke or bit here and there. It is painfully long at 116 minutes (it feels much, much longer) and simply tries too hard. Simply swearing in the wild west with vulgar sex jokes, pretty raunchy physical humor, some drug jokes, it isn't enough. There's got to be something more.
The parts that do work? It all goes back to the title. The wild west was a particularly nasty place, and as MacFarlane's movie/script points out in its strongest moments, there were a countless myriad of ways to die and to die graphically. The bits that work come from that simple premise, the west was almost trying to kill you. MacFarlane's Albert has a funny monologue pointing out all those ways people can and do die from. The payoff is priceless, Albert literally pointing out the town mayor's dead body that's been lying in the street untouched for three days. The bit comes back later with a great sight gag. The same for the county fair where people always seem to die gruesome, grisly deaths. Gags like that work and do it well, an intelligence to the humor. There isn't enough of those sorts of gags and bits. Instead, we get jokes about a retarded sheep, a gunfighter who can't join the gunfight because he has two (TWO) bouts of extreme and very public diarrhea, and a sheep peeing on Albert while he's hiding from Clinch's gunmen. Now, that's funny!
Some reviews criticized MacFarlane for casting himself in his movie. That's the least of my concerns. You may not like his humor, but he knows how to get laughs. His quick, random asides work well, and a cowardly sheep rancher is an interesting chance of pace for a lead in a western. The script does him no favors though, his Albert getting too many ranting and raving monologues that feel forced. His scenes are okay with Theron, but they tend to slow things down even more. Neeson looks to be having some fun as the dastardly Clinch, a bandit who's reputation precedes him, but even he is underused. SPOILERS STOP READING SPOILERS There are a couple surprise appearances along the way but blink and you'll miss them. They include Christopher Lloyd, Ewan MacGregor, Ryan Reynolds, Gilbert Gottfried, Jamie Foxx (stay for the credits), and then Patrick Stewart providing his recognizable voice for a quick voiceover. END OF SPOILERS YOU MAY CONTINUE READING NOW.
Who else to look for? Wes Studi is a quick scene-stealer in his appearance as Cochise, the wise Apache chief who guides Albert through his struggles. Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman don't fare so well as an engaged couple. Oh, and Silverman is a prostitute, but the couple is "saving themselves" for marriage. So yeah, we get lots of raunchy sex jokes that fell short one and all. You could have heard a pin drop in the theater with each passing joke. Repeated jokes about anal and oral sex and ejaculation can only take you so far. Neil Patrick Harris plays Foy, Louise's new beau, impressive mustache to boot. Screen veteran Matt Clark gets a quick part too as a gold prospector.
What I found disappointing was that MacFarlane was genuinely trying to do something different here. In one way, he's trying to make a comedic spoof western in the vein of Blazing Saddles. He's not making a generic, studio-forced sequel. At no point does it click though, a series of bits and one-liners that work at times on their own, but ultimately fall short. MacFarlane looks to be a western fan, even shooting on-location in Monument Valley, made famous by famed western director John Ford. Everything from the look to the throwback-sounding score to the credits scream 'WESTERN!' but it never gels as one cohesive picture. Struggles to find the right tone, the right comedy, the right rhythm, you can point to any and all of these problems as handicapping the final product.
Your call in the end. I love westerns and when a comedy western is handled correctly, I'll go along for the ride. This western most definitely tried, but it just doesn't happen. A few good bits don't amount to something worthwhile in the end. I didn't like this movie at all, and there were more than a few extended scenes that were painful to watch. Truly painful, made all that much worse by the fact that somewhere in all that mess is a potentially very good movie. As is though, steer clear. If you do go see it, definitely don't watch the trailer.
A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014): */****