3 ½ stars
In a word: Typical
There is literally nothing to this movie other than an abundance of jokes. There’s no substance, no dramatic depth and no emotional stakes. To be perfectly fair though, A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST never actually tries to exhibit any of these things – and that’s totally okay.
A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST comes from Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy and American Dad and the mastermind behind 2012’s best comedy – Ted. MacFarlane once again takes on directing and writing duties, but this time
around he has also cast himself as the leading man. MacFarlane plays Albert Stark, a cowardly, passive-aggressive sheep farmer. Filling out supporting roles are numerous recognizable faces like Charlize Theron, Giovanni Ribisi, Amanda Seyfried, Liam Neeson, Sarah Silverman and Neil Patrick Harris.
The film’s plot is so aimless and disorganized you would be forgiven for believing that all the filmmakers had in their arsenal prior to shooting was a genre, a cast and a set of gags. Albert, the cowardly sheep farmer, is dumped by his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) for not being bold or adventurous. He decides to leave his frontier town of Old Stump in Arizona, but changes his mind when he meets Anna (Charlize Theron). Anna is the wife of outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson). She’s in town waiting for Clinch to finish up with his lawless antics in the area. When Albert gets himself locked into a gunfight with Louise’s new lover Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), Anna decides to teach Albert how to shoot and thusly how to tap into his own courageousness and sense of adventure.
This simple, arbitrarily set up story is really just there to provide a canvas for an array of one-liners, witty jokes, sight gags and other typical MacFarlane-bred comedy antics. The film isn’t concerned about making the audience care about what happens. It’s not concerned about the audience rooting for characters or jeering characters. All it wants to do is make people laugh – and it mostly succeeds. The title refers to a long-running gag throughout the film, not the scattershot plot. It’s clear what came first in the development of this film, as the story and characters are quite loosely built around this motif.
There are a lot of jokes in this film that are sprung off the foundation but fail to stick the landing, but there are also plenty that will leave you in stitches. It is here I must note that if you have never found MacFarlane funny, you don’t have a chance with this one. MacFarlane plays to his strengths and his regulars with the comedy on display here. It’s crude, it’s awkward, and it’s most definitely sexist and racist at times. He offends religion, persons with mental disability, Native Americans, farmers, the elderly, and I’m more than likely forgetting a few. It’s typical MacFarlane humor – take it or leave it.
The biggest problem with A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST is that when it’s not in the midst of joke, which is rather infrequently, it’s quite boring. It’s a good thing the gags fire out of this film at such a rapid pace.
Some of the film’s greatest shining moments include a song-and-dance number featuring Neil Patrick Harris (though sadly not sung by him), the many different ways people die in the West, a totally bizarre drug-trip, and a number of other sight gags and verbal jokes that I dare not spoil here. There are gags that don’t work, especially one involving Neil Patrick Harris and two hats – it goes on far longer than it ever should have. There is an abundance of literal toilet humor so if gags about body fluids, farts and genitalia don’t amuse you then you might be too offended or unimpressed to appreciate the other (actually funny) jokes.
Seth MacFarlane is hardly the best actor to lead a live-action feature film. When he’s not setting up or in the middle of a joke and is trying to play a scene straight, he just looks uncomfortable and awkward (and not the good comedic awkward I mentioned before). The talented actors around him embody their roles perfectly. Everyone seems to be aware that the project they’re working on is nothing more than an extended gag reel. The film never takes itself too seriously, so the actors up the farcicality appropriately. They overact and underact where necessary, giving the film a degree of self-awareness it sorely needs. This allows the film to be moderately enjoyable and not infuriating. It’s a shame it’s not carried over the entire film.
I love westerns, and part of my appreciation for them is the limitless beauty of the cinematography. The west provides such a lavish landscape, and I’ve yet to see a film capture it unfavorably. Even in its harsh brutality, it is still strikingly picturesque. This film is no different. It perhaps offers a cleaner and less inspired window to the west than the gritty beauty of other more classic westerns, but this is a comedy after all.
Overall, A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST is a reasonably entertaining albeit ultimately silly film, and that’s really all we can except from Seth MacFarlane. That, and jokes designed to offend everyone. Success!
A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST was released in cinemas across Australia on June 5th, 2014.
REVIEWER: David Thomas Williams