Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West isn’t a movie. It’s a string of lazy and unfunny gross-out jokes haphazardly taped together in an attempt to trick you into thinking it’s a movie. That gimmick of randomly-placed pop cultural references and cameos may work on a 20-minute television show but for 120 minutes? It’s always a tell-tale sign that a movie is a dog when every good joke, save for one in which a man explosively defecates into a hat, is in its trailers.
This is really unfortunate because the central idea here—that the Old West was a wildly inhospitable and dangerous place to live—was one ripe with potential. And MacFarlane, with his politically-incorrectness, crude humor, and propensity for pop cultural references, seemed like the ideal filmmaker for the task. I should have known better because in spite of some really funny slapstick bits and ingenious wordplay, the majority of A Million Ways to Die in the West is tired and clichéd barrel-scraping witless nonsense that even Adam Sandler would scoff at.
In what has to be one of the biggest casting mistakes of 2014, MacFarlane stars as a cowardly sheep farmer named Albert whose aptitude for pissing off the wrong people causes his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) to leave him for a mustache shop owner named Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). When Anna (Charlize Theron), the wife of a notorious outlaw, lazily-named Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), comes to town, she takes a liking to the utterly charmless Albert. After Albert inexplicably challenges Foy to a duel, Anna offers to help him learn how to shoot. Instead, she falls madly in love with him, because, you know, Seth MacFarlane is irresistible.
Alas, the smug and entitled idiot is too busy whining and complaining (for the umpteenth time) about how dangerous the west is to his one friend, a desperate virgin named Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and his prostitute girlfriend (Sarah Silverman). The punchline to their relationship, one of the film’s few clever concoctions, is another joke rendered stale by MacFarlane insistence on hammering his audience on the head with the same joke over and over again.
To be fair, MacFarlane has talent. I count myself among the throngs of fans of his television shows. I also admired Ted, his 2012 debut feature. With that film, MacFarlane proved that he had the chops to take a bizarre and risky premise and turn it into a goldmine of crude and witty jokes. It seems like the massive success of that film give him the opportunity to do whatever he pleased without anyone questioning his creative decisions. The result is something like A Million Ways to Die in the West – a vanity-driven project (MacFarlane serves as writer, director, producer and star) that may have sounded good on paper but is anything but in execution.
To his credit, the film starts out strong, with a gorgeous opening credit sequence that’s evocative of Shane, Red River and other western staples. Joel McNeely’s Elmer Bernstein-esque score and Michael Barrett’s vibrant cinematography also ensure that, if anything, the movie looks great. It’s too bad that creative thought process didn’t spill over into his script.
MacFarlane’s biggest misstep however, was casting himself in the lead role. He may be a genius at voiceover work but he has the screen presence of a glass pane and the visage of the Pillsbury dough boy. He also makes the bone-headed decision of delivering his lines anachronistically instead of bothering with a period-friendly accent. This style may be intentional but it only succeeds in making him stick out even more in comparison to his more talented co-stars.
Since MacFarlane pilfers the lions-share of the screen-time, his co-stars are left with barely anything. Seyfried is reduced to a punching bag for his misogyny while Theron spends most of her time reacting to his lame jokes. Only Patrick Harris is able to pull something out of what little he’s given. He elicits the film’s sole laugh-out-loud moment even though the joke is a tired one we’ve literally seen a 100 times before in Adam Sandler and Farrelly brother movies. There are also an assortment of cameos in the film but for the most part, they’re bizarre and oddly-placed; neither memorable nor logical.
Some of my colleagues in the film criticism community have compared A Million Ways to Die in the West to Mel Brooks seminal Blazing Saddles. Granted, they’re mostly negative comparisons but they really shouldn’t even bother. Brooks’ film was a thematically-rich satire with a clear goal: to upturn the romantic notion of the west put forward during the Golden Age of Hollywood. MacFarlane’s film is an aimless mess that’s notable for a few chuckles and a close-up shot of diarrhea spilling out of a hat.
Director: Seth MacFarlane
Writers: Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, Wellesley Wild
Principal Cast: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Neil Patrick Harris, Amanda Seyfried, Liam Neeson
Editing: Jeff Freeman
Cinematography: Michael Barrett
Music: Joel McNeeley
Running time: 116 minutes
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Rating: R for strong crude and sexual content, language throughout, some violence and drug material