By: Matthew Goudreau
A Million Ways to Die in the West
If Seth MacFarlane’s first film Ted felt like a three-part episode of his hit series Family Guy, then his newest follow-up feels like an entire season. I’m not even talking about the comedic apex of the series (which admittedly I used to be a big fan of). A Million Ways to Die in the West follows very much in the footsteps of the last few years of Family Guy. It’s overcrowded with numerous ideas and plot lines, overstays its welcome to the point of being monotonously dull, and is sporadically funny. I emphasize the word “sporadically” because at a runtime of almost two hours, there just simply are not enough consistent laughs to warrant this decision.
Following in the footsteps of directors such as Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, MacFarlane stars as the lead character Albert Stark. He’s a meek sheep farmer who is so meek that he cowards out of a gun fight. As a result, his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) breaks up with him in favor of the debonair proprietor of a moustache business (Neil Patrick Harris). Although nothing appears to be going in Alfred’s favor despite the companionship of best friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), he finds a kindred spirit in new arrival Anna (Charlize Theron). The catch is she’s on the run from her forceful boyfriend Clinch (Liam Neeson), who is the biggest outlaw in the West. The movie then becomes a story of Albert learning to gain some courage with occasional jabs at life during the 1800s in the old west.
While I wasn’t the biggest fan of Ted, the film compensated for jokes that fell flat with a quick- fire pace that resulted in more jokes that made me laugh as opposed to not. The biggest issue that plagues A Million Ways to Die in the West is the lack of a strong narrative sense. The film starts off like it’s going to be a spoof of the Western genre in the tradition of Blazing Saddles. When there are sequences or jokes that satirize the harsh living conditions of the time, they’re not always funny but they have a cohesive flow to them. However, if there is a joke that manages to produce a laugh, the same joke is either constantly repeated or goes on for a ridiculous period of time. See a plotline between Edward and his prostitute girlfriend (Sarah Silverman) for an example.
I am by no means “highbrow” when it comes to comedy. If something manages to make me laugh, then I believe a joke fulfills its purpose. MacFarlane fails to find a balance between the “humor” and the story of Albert. The sometimes clever jokes about the west become lost in the shuffle of juvenile and borderline childish sequences of gross out gags. The movie runs the full gambit of bodily functions, poop, human anatomy, and even MacFarlane’s standard of religious “jokes.” Worse than that, Macfarlane’s direction results in a lot of telegraphed sequences that would have actually been chuckle worthy had they not been predictable or derivative of other sources.
Case in point, the biggest laugh from the movie is from another movie altogether. For the sake of confidentiality, I will not spoil it but it does represent what is really indicative about the film. It feels very much like a collection of all the lesser jokes on Family Guy, complete with the typical cutaway gags you might expect. It also feels like a vanity project of sorts for MacFarlane both as an actor and a director. How is Macfarlane’s direction overall? For the most part, it’s all over the place. I wouldn’t call it entirely sloppy; there are plenty of moments in which he nails the Western setting and backgrounds. There’s even a fantastic song and dance sequence that is a musical treat that rejuvenated my senses after a period of sheer boredom. I’d even go so far as to say that a musical could be a great project for MacFarlane. He’s well known for his love of show-tunes and the scene I’m describing feels like something better suited for the stage. It would certainly play to his strengths (including his impressive singing voice) and wouldn’t have to rely on juvenile humor.
As the lead, MacFarlane feels very much like the character Brian from Family Guy. Part of that stems from his smartass delivery and the fact of his natural voice being the one he utilizes for Brian. I wasn’t too critical of his performance due to having low expectations, but he’s certainly not up to the level of Brooks or Allen. The only similarity between the three is that they all feel like caricatures of themselves to some degree. While the dialogue flows naturally from MacFarlane, I didn’t really see his character; I saw Seth MacFarlane. Most of his dialogue has a certain amount of “meta awareness” to it which does not help. He feels more like someone who was transported to the old west as opposed to someone from the period.
I would have enjoyed A Million Ways to Die in the West much more had MacFarlane cut down on the excessive runtime and focused his screenplay. A comedy should never run more than two hours unless it’s either incredibly funny or has great characters that are worth spending time with. Here, there’s neither of those elements and I found myself growing anxious around the ninety mark. I didn’t hate the film by any means due to getting a decent amount of chuckles and a few hard laughs. If anything else, I was highly disappointed. With such a talented cast, I felt that it warranted a much better film than the finished product. I can’t accuse MacFarlane and company of not trying, but what I can and will accuse them of is trying way too hard.