We picture the west in vast panoramas, great big blue skies, open prairies, with miles upon miles of amazing, yet challenging and often life threatening terrain, symbolizing opportunity and risk, the “Manifest Destiny” of the 19th century and the quintessential “American Dream” of the 20th century, all punctuated by a booming Elmer Bernstein soundtrack and Big John Wayne smiling at us from afar atop his trusty mount. Seth MacFarlane pictures the west as a giant sweaty pile of cow manure with no air conditioning, and, as the title suggest, a place where there are a whole lot of ways to meet an untimely end.
Albert Stark, played here by MacFarlane is of course equally unsympathetic to the frontier lifestyle. Stark is a sheep farmer, and not even a good one as his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) reminds him just before she dumps him near the beginning of the movie to find a more suitable companion in these troubled times. Stark is sullen after the break up, until Charlize Theron enters the movie and falls for his quirky timid ways. Theron’s character also happens to be the wife of the fastest gun in the territory, played by Liam Neeson. She, being quite a hand herself with firearms, trains Stark, who is not, for a gunfight he has gotten himself into with the man who took his girlfriend. Probably the best hidden joke of the movie is that the hottest actress in the movie is forced to pretend that Seth MacFarlane (the writer and director of this film) is a better catch than Liam Neeson, even if he is old enough to have been around in the real Old West. I’m also starting to think MacFarlane just made this movie as an excuse to make out with Charlize Theron, which if that’s the case, job well done sir.
‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’ basically feels like ‘Family Guy Goes West’… If you’re a fan of that sort of thing you will probably find a few chuckles here and there throughout this movie. That said, this is a movie that would greatly benefit from having a Family Guy like run time of about a half hour. As it is, this is a film with about thirty minutes worth of plot and an extra hour or so of fart jokes and assorted hi-jinks that began to tire me at about the forty-five minute mark. The movie apparently began as an inside joke with Seth MacFarlane about how much life must have sucked in the old west. Unfortunately the idea never really developed much farther than that. That would be fine if the movie were more consistently funny. But alas, MacFarlane has about the same hit or miss ratio with his jokes here that his character does shooting at glass bottles on a fence post, that being four or five duds for every one that works.
MacFarlane’s running gags in this movie have all the subtlety of a brass pot clanging against your skull. There’s a born again Christian prostitute played by Sarah Silverman who performs all manner of sexual enterprise with various unwashed ruffians, but makes up for it by not having sex with her fiancée, for whom she is saving herself for the wedding night. Neil Patrick Harris plays Foy, the man who takes Albert’s girlfriend by virtue of his manly mustache. Most of his scenes in the movie are just an excuse to sneak in various mustache related jokes. Liam Neeson plays Clinch Leatherwood, and that character name alone should tell you all you need to know both about the character and the level of writing engaged in here.
I don’t dislike MacFarlane. I have been an on and off fan of Family Guy for years, and I thought Ted was an absolute hoot. The one thing that Ted had going for it that this movie doesn’t though is likable lead characters. MacFarlane just comes across as a snarky douchebag most of the movie. You are compelled to root against him and for the much cooler and manlier opposition his character runs up against in the form of Liam Neeson and Neil Patrick Harris. Perhaps MacFarlane would have been better off to cast a better lead actor than himself to play the role of timid sheep farmer Albert Stark. I had similar issues with “We’re The Millers” and maybe it is just me, but I am really not a fan of the “likable douchebag” as the sympathetic leading character. To me it’s just too much fourth wall breaking and needless pandering and trying to have your cake and eat it too, cinematically speaking. I would just prefer an actually likable leading character, and save the running commentary and countless in jokes for other characters in the film with less to do otherwise.
The best part of this movie, and easily so, is the cameos, which if you do not wish to have spoiled for you, stop reading at this point. My two favorites were Doc Brown in his Back to the Future III get up, and the best one occurring at the end credits with Jamie Foxx reprising his role of Django Freeman as he steps up to shoot a carnival vendor who has a “runaway slave” shooting gallery game. Aside from that, the best scene that is actually a part of the movie would be the Blazing Saddles like scene with MacFarlane, captured by Indians, sitting around the campfire smoking “dope” as they call it, and having a musical montage complete with giant dancing sheep playing in his head. That hallucination looked like it was way more fun than being a part of this movie.
I went into this movie with modest expectations. From the trailers this looked like it had the potential to be an absolute train wreck (one of the many ways to die in the West that is not used in this film), and it more than lived up to that potential. This is just a paint by the numbers comedy free for all that tries to pass off its potty mouth as edgy cool. For those of you wanting to see the old west and westerns in general lampooned properly, Mel Brook’s classic Blazing Saddles is still the undisputed champion in that category. That was an edgy and more importantly, very funny movie. In comedy, if one fails to make the audience laugh for an extended period of time, it is commonly referred to as ‘dying’. When read in this context, the makers of this movie have at the very least gotten the title right.
This is basically a kind of ‘blah’ movie that is often and thankfully interrupted by those completely out of nowhere sight gags such as people being gored by bulls or crushed by a huge chunk of ice. Those moments provide the needed levity to slog through the rest of the film’s awkward and clunky content. This is another one of those movies where the outtakes are probably funnier than the actual film. This time however, it feels like they knew that going in, and so they just left all of the aforementioned outtakes in the final cut. Depending on how well you enjoy MacFarlane’s brand of humor this movie will either come across as a forgettable but mildly amusing romp or just plain awful. One final note here. Liam Neeson has a face that was made to be in westerns. If at the end of his career this is the only major one he ever appears in, that will be a cinematic crime of epic proportions.
A Million Ways to Die in the West gets a one out of five: BAD.