A Million Ways to Die in the West Review

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Or how many times can we tell the same joke?

by Steve Withers Jun 3, 2014 at 8:12 AM

  • Movies review


    A Million Ways to Die in the West Review

    It would have made a funny episode of Family Guy, perhaps with Stewie and Brian going back to the Old West to see just how dangerous it actually was.

    Sadly what might have seemed like an amusing concept - all the different ways you could be killed on the frontier in the late nineteenth century - struggles to sustain the laughs over two hours. It's a shame because Ted, Seth MacFarlane's directorial debut, was genuinely funny with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments amongst the bawdy humour. Possibly MacFarlane felt more comfortable voicing an animated teddy bear because in his second feature - A Million Ways to Die in the West - the results are far less impressive and definitely less successful.
    Ted was something of a surprise hit two years ago and as a result the studio were willing to indulge MacFarlane in his next big screen venture. Unfortunately despite rarely being in front of the camera, the talented MacFarlane decided to play the lead role himself rather than entrusting the part to another actor. It's one thing to voice animated characters or a CG teddy bear but it's an entirely different prospect to carry a film as the hero. Since the film is so clearly influenced by Blazing Saddles, perhaps MacFarlane should have followed Mel Brooks' example and played a supporting role.

    A Million Ways to Die in the West
    As it is we find MacFarlane playing Albert Stark, a sheep farmer in the Old West who prefers talking his way out of trouble, rather than resorting to violence. Unfortunately this more progressive attitude is thought by some to be cowardly and, as a result, his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him for a 'moustachier' named Foy (played by Neil Patrick Harris). Albert strikes up a friendship with the newly arrived Anna (Charlize Theron), who is attracted to the fact that Albert is a nice guy. Unfortunately Anna is married to the notorious outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), who is none-too-pleased to discover that his wife has fallen for Albert. A series of comic misadventures ensue as Albert initially runs from Clinch before doing what a man's got to do.

    Seth MacFarlane is a likeable guy but his relative unfamiliarity to audiences as a leading man and his inexperience in front of the camera hamper the film. He frankly bites off more than he can chew in his role as star-writer-producer-director and as a result something has to give, in this case it's the script. The simple fact is that A Million Ways to Die in the West just isn't funny enough, leaving much of the cast with little to work with. A comic actor with the abilities of Neil Patrick Harris really deserves better material and using the "challenge accepted" catch phrase from his TV show How I Met Your Mother is hardly clever. Although in fairness, Harris does get one of the biggest laughs in a scene involving explosive diarrhea and a hat that takes full advantage of his talent for physical comedy.

    MacFarlane clearly wants to make this generation's Blazing Saddles but keeps missing the target.

    The same is true of Amanda Seyfried and Giovanni Ribisi, neither of whom get many funny lines. In the case of Ribisi, who plays Albert's best friend Edward, the running joke is that he and fiancé Ruth (Sarah Silverman) are devout Christians who are saving themselves for marriage despite the fact that Silverman works in a brothel and sleeps with up to 15 men a day. The joke is funny the first time but the film keeps going back to that particular well until it's completely dry. The overuse of repetition as a comic tool is one of the film's big failings, although perhaps the clue is in the title - maybe it should have been called A Million Ways to Tell the Same Joke - as MacFarlane and his fellow writers find a multitude of ways to kill people.

    Strangely its left to the film's more serious cast members to get some of the best laughs, with both Charlize Theron and Liam Neeson managing to make more of the script than is actually there. Theron in particular is a revelation, proving to be a very capable comic actor with great timing. Whilst Neeson continues to mine a rich vein of previously untapped comedy gold that started with his hysterical turn in the TV series Life's Too Short and was seen most recently seen in The Lego Movie. In an obvious attempt to up the gag ratio, the film resorts to a string of cameos, some of which work and some of which fall surprisingly flat; whilst none are as inventive or as funny as the Sam Jones/Flash Gordon scenes in Ted.

    A Million Ways to Die in the West
    According to interviews A Million Ways to Die in the West originated as an inside joke between MacFarlane and co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild. This joke evolved into the three writers riffing on the idea of how dull, depressing and dangerous it must have been to live in the Wild West. MacFarlane claims that he's a lifelong fan of westerns and researched the era thoroughly before writing the script. He also cites various westerns as influences, including 3:10 to Yuma, Oklahoma!, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and El Dorado. Strangely he doesn't mention Blazing Saddles, which seems appropriate since despite the latter film's clear influence, MacFarlane's movie has none of the invention found in Mel Brooks' masterpiece.

    That's the biggest problem with A Million Ways to Die in the West, it's just not original enough and as a result it struggles to remain amusing for the whole of its overly long two-hour running time. The writers just get lazy, frequently resorting to swearing or cameos to generate laughs and constantly falling back on the idea of a man with modern sensibilities stuck in the Old West. The film also hammers home its running gags, especially the prostitute fiancé and all the ways you can die in the west, until they just aren't funny anymore. As a result the audience starts to anticipate the jokes, which again limits their impact and it's largely left to MacFarlane's innate charm to gloss over the lack of real laughs.

    With all the talent involved this is one film that should really have been funnier.

    Whilst the writing is generally lazy and Macfarlane fails to convince as a romantic leading man, at least the film looks great, with the filmmakers taking full advantage of their primary New Mexico locations and throwing in plenty of beauty shots of Monument Valley. The latter location certainly brings to mind many of John Ford's classic Westerns, along with Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West and MacFarlane's use of a widescreen aspect ratio gives the film a more epic feel that it probably deserves. Unfortunately the direction is pedestrian, limiting the impact of the visual jokes, whilst the film retains a modern sensibility that is at odds with its western setting.

    If A Million Ways to Die in the West had been a twenty minute episode of Family Guy it would have been stuffed full of jokes, sight gags, cutaways, invention and no doubt a brilliant musical number. Instead, as a live action movie it feels uninspired, overlong and only mildly amusing, which is a genuine shame. When you consider all the talent involved, A Million Ways to Die in the West should have been much funnier and, as a result, it's a major disappointment. Let's hope Seth MacFarlane gets his mojo back for the upcoming Ted 2.

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