A Million Ways to Die in the West film review
Let us just say that edgy huckster Seth MacFarlane and his irreverent western romp A Million Ways to Die in the West will not make the legendary Mel Brooks or his iconic Blazing Saddles lose sleep anytime soon. Sure, MacFarlane is not anything to sneeze at given his off-the-cuff wackiness for pop cultural ditties that include television’s naughty animated treats Family Guy and American Dad. Plus, MacFarlane was the warped soul responsible for the R-rated roguish teddy bear with the Hugh Hefner hipness in Ted. So yes…MacFarlane does have a credible track record for satirizing off-kilter topics from suburban family life to childhood toys. However, the covered wagons suffer from the wobbly wheels of strained laughs in the outlandish but uneven A Million Ways to Die in the West.
As star, director and co-writer, MacFarlane has his cockeyed creativity all over A Million Ways to Die in the West as he assembled a cast of notables in supporting roles to inject the lunacy into this frontier farce. The problem, however, remains that the so-called aforementioned lunacy feels lukewarm and sketchy while never committing to anything coherently outrageous. The broad gags are random and serviceable but nothing challenging or distinctive in terms of its run-of-the-mill raunchy bits. The smarmy jokes persist but are digested as smoothly as stale oats traveling down a horse’s strep throat.
Skillfully, MacFarlane does manage to devise an expansive western setting that seems authentic in majestic scope. From scenic dusty landscapes to rolling hills in the background to the costumed townsfolk A Million Ways does drive home the notion of a nostalgic reminiscence regarding the Old West. There is a rich opportunity in spoofing western culture and even the cheeky sentiment about how many methods that one can expire in the Great Outdoors of gunslingers and gin registers with inherent hilarity on occasion. MacFarlane somehow holds back and does not take the time to allow the scattered chuckles to settle on the nutty material that has trouble reaching its manic peak in selected spots.
Inept sheep rancher Albert Stark (MacFarlane) is a tool to say the least. Cowardly and armed with an assortment of off-putting quips about how intolerable the American western lifestyle is to him Albert is basically an on-screen commentator for the audience in sharing his disillusionment with his current existence. Albert spends time with his equally non-confrontational buddy Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) who cowers with the best of them. And so Albert and Edward basically duck and dodge trouble while discussing the harmful ways that their hostile surroundings can prove fatal to their livelihood.
In addition to their indifference regarding the hostile west, both guys have their share of romantic unrest as well. For Albert, he has lost his girlfriend Louise’s (Amanda Seyfried) loving affections and aims to try and win her back at all costs. Thankfully, the lovely Anna (Oscar-winner Charlize Theron) is on board to assist Albert in getting his love back. Predictably, Albert and Anna end up falling for one another in the process of wheeling in the elusive Louise. In getting attached to Anna’s heart Albert will soon discover one of the many ways he will die as Anna’s marital hand belongs to nasty-minded outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson). In the meantime, Edward tries to satisfy the needs of resident acid-tongued prostitute Ruth (as fittingly portrayed by acid-tongued comedienne Sarah Silverman) during their engagement.
As flippant and frivolous that A Million Ways to Die in the West wants to be in calculating spirit it meanders all over the place and never quite figures out how to approach the romantic angles of its protagonists set to the winking comical timing of its off-balanced humor. No one can argue that their funnybone will not experience a hit every now and then when viewing the guffaws that dart across the screen at a given moment. Sadly, MacFarlane simply cannot sustain the synthetic madness of his western washout because the comedy is stretched out over the two-hour limit where the strained laughter, pseudo devilish charm and romantic static of the characterizations are lazily thrown against the wall with MacFarlane hoping that something quirky infectiously sticks.
As the shifty nerd Albert, MacFarlane somehow feels out of place and disengaged with the goofy-minded goings-on that transpire. He spends so much energy beating a dead horse and informing us how shady western life is constantly that one would almost wish that he preferred the behind-the-scenes duty as an off-screen voice narrator/artist much like he incorporates for a busty episode of the joyously subversive Family Guy. The shtick with Albert yapping about the insufferable west runs its course after a while as the hearty snickering morphs into sarcastic sighs. The riotous riffs in West are repetitive and uneventfully staged.
Supporting turns by Neil Patrick Harris as Foy, a pompous hair product expert and rival of Albert for Louise’s attention, as well as Seyfried’s shallow vixen that Albert longs to win back are refreshingly spunky. Even Ribisi’s meek sidekick Edward is a breath of fresh air. Silverman’s saloon hooker grates on the nerves and Neeson’s presence as the diabolical Leatherwood should have been featured more into the mix to add that adversarial touch of craziness to spice up MacFarlane’s hapless Albert.
Potty-mouthed enthusiasts and unapologetic MacFarlane fans will find a million ways to embrace West regardless of the clumsy skewering of the romanticized pioneering past. Maybe in the case of this Old Stump-based farcical frontier fable we can deem MacFarlane’s gun-pointing gem How the West Was Wane?
A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)
Seth MacFarlane, Giovanni Ribisi, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Liam Neeson, Sarah Silverman, Neil Patrick Harris
Seth MacFarlane and Alec Sulkin
CRITIC’S RATING: ** stars (out of 4 stars)