A film review by Craig J. Koban June 6, 2014 

A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST

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½ 

2014, R, 116 mins.

 

Seth MacFarlane as Albert  /  Charlize Theron as Anna  /  Amanda Seyfried as Louise  /  Liam Neeson as Clinch  /  Giovanni Ribisi as Edward  /  Neil Patrick Harris as Foy  /  Sarah Silverman as Ruth  /  Wes Studi as Cochise  /  Evan Jones as Lewis

Directed by Seth MacFarlane  /  Written by Seth MacFarlane, Alex Sulkin and Wellesley Wild

The new comedy A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST is Seth McFarlane’s second film behind the camera as director and first in front of the camera in a starring role.  

His previous film, 2012’s TED, was a frequently hysterical and endearingly vulgar buddy comedy about the highly bizarre bromance between a grown man and his talking and self-aware teddy bear.  Now, McFarlane seems to be borrowing from Mel Brooks’ decades-old playbook by spoofing the western genre.  Whereas Brooks’ BLAZING SADDLES was an all-out farce, A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST is more akin to slyly riffing on the monotonously dreary and dangerous lifestyle that the Wild West cultivated.  Injecting a 21st Century sensibility into a period film is hardly anything novel, but McFarlane has ample fun commenting on the absurdity of the genre.  I only wished that the film was less scattershot for laughs and didn’t rely on so much puerile bodily function humor to fill in the gaps. 

The opening of the film is kind of brilliant.  We meet Albert (McFarlane), a somewhat bumbling slacker and sheep rancher in 1882 Arizona that’s found himself in the unenviable position of having to go face-to-face with a local gunslinger that wants to enact some quick comeuppance on him.  Albert isn't the prototypical Western hero archetype: if anything, he’s a sniveling coward that tries to fast talk his way out of any predicament (“I’m not the hero. I’m the guy in the crowd making fun of the hero’s shirt!”).  As he pathetically tries to logically reason with the man that wants to gun him down, we get a sense of the type of madcap social commentary that the film is engaging in: the West isn’t grand and epic as portrayed in many a movie…it royally sucks.  Everyone carries a gun, everyone at some point wants to kill someone else, and when vengeful bandits aren’t out to murder you, the horribly antiquated medical practices of the day will.  Hell, even farting – as demonstrated in one funny moment – can indiscriminately kill you here. 

 

 

Thankfully, Albert manages to convince his gunfight opponent to give him some time to settle his debt with him, but things begin to snowball even worse for him from there.  He’s royally dumped by his long-time girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), for a well tailored local man named Foy (Neil Patrick Harris, so delightfully smarmy here) that’s proudly mustached and runs, yes, a business that caters to mustaches   Albert’s home life with his parents is no picnic either, seeing as his upbringing with them was a filled with hostile spite.  All Albert wants to do is leave his miserable town for something better, but his plans to vacate are stalled by the appearance of Anna (Charlize Theron), who seems to strike up a mighty cordial relationship with him right from the get go (she even helps train him to fire a gun to prepare for an inevitable face-off against Foy).  Yet, as Albert begins to fall for Anna, her carefully guarded marriage to a vile and notorious gunslinger (Liam Neeson) comes to the forefront, which spells even more trouble for the increasingly frustrated Albert. 

There’s a delightful level of subtle absurdity that permeates A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST, seeing how it injects an anachronistic flavor in the dialogue exchanges (the film feels like it has transplanted most of its characters from a contemporary movie and whisked them into the past).  Most of the laughs generated are at the expense of just how nasty it is to live on the frontier, which Albert pathetically tries, as he may, to convince his naïve friends of such facts throughout the film.  What’s equally impressive about the film is not only how well cast it is, but just how beautifully shot it is as well.  McFarlane gets great visual mileage from shooting at Monument Valley locations to give his film a sense of natural expansiveness.  Very few recent screen comedies look as picturesque as this one. 

It's kind of utterly thankless how McFarlane’s rallied up so many proven performance partners here (containing multiple Oscar nominees).  Charlize Theron in particular has demonstrated an affinity for comedy in the past (see the terribly underrated YOUNG ADULT) and shows that she can slur, cuss, and flex her lewd comic muscles with the best of them.  She also understands that being funny means not trying to be funny, as is the case when she straight-faced/deadpans to Albert, “Why are the Indians so mad?  We’re basically splitting the country 50/50 with them!”  Neeson, in a bit of an underwritten role, also appears to take great joy in hamming it up, albeit with an under cranked tenor.  Neil Patrick Harris perhaps is the most game of all of the actors here playing a man of almost unthinkable narcissist extremes.  He’s so damn proud of his mustache that he even gets his own toe-tapping song and dance number about it.  Oddly enough, McFarlane perhaps fares the worst among the lot.  He has a likeable everyman charm, to be sure, especially for how he relays his deep seeded neuroses regarding living in a time that could very easily kill him on any given day.  Yet, I think that McFarlane is at his sarcastic best when voice acting characters, as he does on TV’s FAMILY GUY and even TED.  He’s sort of a bland screen presence, especially when paired in scenes opposite of thespian heavyweights like Theron and Neeson.  Thankfully, he’s very democratic in terms of imbuing a lion’s share of laughs with his co-stars and, on occasion, a few impeccably timed blink-and-you’ll-miss-them celebrity cameos that give the film a much needed dosage of wildcard, unpredictable energy.  

Regrettably, far too much of A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST feels tonally disjointed and miscalculated for its own good.  The film achieves its finest chuckles in simple, low-key moments when Albert engages in subversive monologues about the dreariness of western life, but in-between those scenes McFarlane seem to have too much predilection for jokes involving vomit, farting, and diarrhea, which all feel more akin to a lazy Adam Sandler film on lame auto-pilot.  Even the film’s attempts at graphic sexual material gets tired after awhile, as is the case with a potentially hilarious subplot involving Albert’s Christian friend (Giovanni Ribisi) being engaged to a whore (Sarah Silverman) that refuses to have sex with him before marriage…because she’s a Christian as well (it never pays off as ironically amusing as it thinks it does).  The film is also mournfully long at nearly two hours, a running time that typically zaps the momentum of any comedy.  It’s abundantly clear throughout the film that for every scene that scores multiple guffaws and verbal zingers there’s a dozen more that fall resoundingly flat. 

I don’t think that A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST is the categorically unfunny comedic stinker that many other critics have let on.  There’s some smart writing on the table here from McFarlane, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild that helps to segregate it well apart from the shadow that BLAZING SADDLES casts over it.  The film, if anything, is definitely not void of laughs.  Its main problem, though, is that it’s a bit of an undisciplined and rambunctious affair; McFarlane seems to lose grasp on when to hold back and when not to.  Judiciously editing a good twenty to thirty minutes out of the film's already bloated running time would have helped, not to mention a few less gags involving sheep urinating into the star’s mouth.  There’s a brilliant satire of Hollywood’s insatiable love affair with the falsely mythic grandeur of the west at the heart of A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST, but McFarlane just forgot to chip away at the excessive and unnecessary pieces to reveal it.

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