US Release Date: 05-30-2014
Directed by: Seth MacFarlane
- Seth MacFarlane, as
- Charlize Theron, as
- Amanda Seyfried, as
- Liam Neeson, as
- Giovanni Ribisi, as
- Neil Patrick Harris, as
- Sarah Silverman, as
- Christopher Hagen, as
- George Stark
- Wes Studi, as
- Matt Clark, as
- Old Prospector
- Evan Jones, as
- Aaron McPherson, as
- Rex Linn, as
- Sheriff / Narrator
- Brett Rickaby, as
- Charlie Blanche
- Alex Borstein, as
- Christopher Lloyd, as
- Ryan Reynolds, as
- Jamie Foxx, as
- Gilbert Gottfried, as
- Abraham Lincoln
- Bill Maher, as
- Ewan McGregor, as
- Cowboy at Fair
- Patrick Stewart as
- Sheep (voice)
Charlize Theron and Seth MacFarlane in A Million Ways to Die in the West.
Given how long it has been since Westerns were a popular genre in Hollywood, spoofing them with Seth MacFarlane's brand of immature humor seems like an odd decision in 2014. Mel Brooks helped put the final nail in their coffin with Blazing Saddles 40 years ago. Apart from the setting, A Million Ways shares a similar setup with that earlier Western comedy in that most of the humor comes from putting characters with modern sensibilities into an Old West setting. While both movies feature some very broad humor and plenty of jokes, Blazing Saddles has a much higher success rate than this film, which feels like a comedy sketch stretched far beyond the breaking point. Certainly this movie should be judged on its own merits and not just in comparison to a superior comedy, but given how few Western comedies there have been, to not compare them is almost impossible.
MacFarlane co-wrote the script, directs and stars. If you're familiar with his animated show Family Guy or his previous film Ted or even his hosting stint at the Academy Awards, you'll have a pretty good idea of the type of humor to expect here. Some of the material is very funny, while other bits fall flat and unfortunately too many jokes are given away in the film's trailer, including a surprise cameo from another film franchise. Although you expect many of MacFarlane's jokes to come from their shock value, at times they are taken too far, or should I say too low. When Neil Patrick Harris's character is given diarrhea for instance and he shits into a hat, it's groan inducing, but might evoke a titter. That's not enough of course, so he must shit into a second hat and then stumble over it, spilling feces into the street. Later MacFarlane is pissed on by a sheep, but that's not going far enough either, so we must actually see the sheep's penis as he is peeing. Resorting to bodily functions for laughs is a sure sign you've hit the bottom of the comedy barrel.
The plot, if you're interested, but it couldn't be more unimportant, involves MacFarlane playing Albert, a sheep farmer, who is dumped by his girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried). He is befriended by Anna (Theron), the mysterious new girl in town, who decides to help him win back his lost love, in part by teaching him to shoot so he can prove his bravery in a gunfight. Naturally, Albert and Anna develop feelings for each other, but what Albert doesn't know is that Anna is in an unhappy marriage with Clinch (Neeson), an outlaw who will be coming to town shortly, leading to the inevitable showdown. All of this is really just an excuse for a long series of jokes, of which, as I said, some work and some don't.
One unfortunate side effect of the plot is that it drags the movie out to nearly 2 hours. Given the ratio of jokes that work and don't work, a tighter edit definitely seems in order. A judicious cut down to 90 minutes could have considerably raised the percentage of successful laughs.
MacFarlane is nothing special as a director, but it's impossible not to be impressed by the film's setting, which is the classic western location of Monument Valley. John Ford shot there 9 separate times, starting with 1939's Stagecoach. It's on beautiful display here, in high-definition and vibrant color. It, along with the sets and costumes, gives a note of authenticity to the film's look.
Although my review sounds fairly harsh, I actually did laugh quite a lot. It definitely employs the lets throw as many jokes at the screen as we can method so that if one joke fails you don't have to wait too long for the next one. MacFarlane and Theron banter well together and their comments are often chuckle worthy. The varied and inventive methods of death are often quite amusing. It might sound like an odd statement, but in some ways A Million Ways succeeds as comedy, while failing as a movie.
Giovanni Ribisi listening to Sarah Silverman describe a sex act in A Million Ways to Die in the West
A Million Ways to Die in the West does succeed as a comedy, most of the time. Putting characters with modern sensibilities, as Scott noted, into an old west setting provides most of the better laughs. I liked the running jokes about no one ever smiling in photographs. Albert complains about the dangers of where he lives as if he has known a better life. People of the time took those things in stride, even if they did not like them, simply because they had few other options.
My favorite comedic bits were provided by Giovanni Ribisi as the virgin Edward, who is engaged to Sarah Silverman playing Ruth, a prostitute. He is fully aware of her profession and is completely supportive of it. When taking Ruth on a date, Edward politely tells the madam that he will have Ruth back in time to take care of her next client. The catch, and joke, in the relationship is that because they are Christians, they will not have sex with each other until after they are married.
Also agreeing with what Scott wrote, not every joke works. The entire diarrhea scene with Neil Patrick Harris's character should have been removed. I never felt this movie ran too long, but that scene does not make sense and producing a groan is not the same as creating a laugh.
MacFarlane may not be anything special as a director, but the movie did take full advantage of the setting, showcasing the rock formations and heavenly sunsets. Albert complains several times about having to live where they do and how harsh of a place it is. In real life, there are no towns in Monument Valley. When John Ford shot there, the cast stayed at an isolated ranch that was even featured in some of his movies.
I enjoy westerns and hope for more to be made. A Million Ways to Die in the West will likely not spark a resurgence of the western genre, but it is nice to know that one may get occasionally produced, and if they are at least as good as this one then count me among the audience.
Amanda Seyfried and Neil Patrick Harris in A Million Ways to Die in the West.
OK so the movie looks (and sounds) good. On that we all agree. But for me the ratio of jokes that worked was maybe one out of every five. And MacFarlane seems to possess a knack for choosing the worst gags to drag out, like the aforementioned shitting in the hat scene. Neil Patrick Harris proves he's willing to go all the way – even when it's a terrible idea. The plot, if you want to call it that, serves only to slow the whole thing down. As a filmmaker MacFarlane is a lazy writer, a sloppy director/editor, and a bland leading man.
The whole modern sensibility thing is way overdone. Instead of saving it for the jokes so they might actually have a shot at being funny, the entire script sounds as if it was written by two bored 21st Century sixteen year old white boys. You'd be hard pressed to find a single line of dialogue that might actually have been spoken by a person living in the American West in 1882. Not that I care about its lack of historic accuracy, I just think it would have been funnier if everyone didn't walk around saying variations of the word “fuck” in nearly every sentence. Mel Brooks understood this.
“I'm gonna shoot a full load all over your cans.” That's considered motion picture level joke writing nowadays? And if you're going to make racially insensitive jokes, at least make them funny. Anna saying, “God, why are the Indians always so mad? I mean we're basically splitting this country 50/50 with them.” and Albert's reply, “They're just selfish.” works because of the obvious exaggerated irony. But there's nothing remotely funny about the runaway slave shooting gallery at the county fair (seventeen years after the Civil War ended). After test audiences expressed their disapproval the scene with Jamie Foxx as Django shooting the gallery owner was added to the end of the movie.
To his credit MacFarlane does manage the occasional clever line or joke. Like the story Albert tells about his minister who killed a man and then murdered the man's son so he couldn't seek revenge. The punchline is, “He gave a sermon about it. A lesson in seeing things through.” Now that's a motion picture quality joke. Too bad there aren't more of them. I'll admit some of the myriad manners of death are amusing. Apparently the reason no one smiled in photographs then is because they were afraid of bursting into flames. I also chuckled when Albert tells Anna how he and his ex met. “She moved to town a couple of years ago to take over the schoolmarm job. Our old schoolmarm got her throat slit by a fast moving tumbleweed.”
The cast is enthusiastic, some of the cameos are fun, and the original soundtrack hits the target but the comedy in this comedy-western is more miss than hit.
Photos © Copyright Universal Pictures (2014)