A Million Ways to Die in the West Review
I love Seth MacFarlane, I am a huge fan of all his work. Ever since I laid eyes on “Family Guy,” I have been hooked. Sure, that show is childish and immature sometimes but I still love it. I am also quite fond of “American Dad!” and I also liked “The Cleveland Show” while it was on. In 2012, MacFarlane did the unthinkable. He was able to make a full-length movie that both achingly funny and goofily heartfelt. “Ted” was ridiculously funny and it’s a movie I continue to enjoy today. So yes, it is true, I am slightly biased. I went into “A Million Ways to Die in the West” with a heart full of hype. I couldn't wait to lay eyes on it. I wanted to point all of this out before I started my review of MacFarlane’s new film.
The film doesn't really have a linear plot for most of the running time. The film is basically a comic “day-in-the-life-of” people living in the Old West of the 1800’s. The film parodies the Western movie genre and the cultures and lifestyles of the era as well. The film centers on Albert Stark (Seth MacFarlane), a rather uncourageous man who is terrified of the West and how dangerous it is. This displeases his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried), who decides to dump him as the film opens. Stark plans on leaving the West for good until he meets Anna Bares (Charlize Theron), who is everything Stark has ever wanted in a woman and more. She teaches him how to stand up to people and be brave. She also teaches him how to shoot in order to prepare for a duel with Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), Louise’s new boyfriend and also Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson) a bandit who wants to kill Albert. The film also focuses on Albert’s best friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) who is having troubles with his girlfriend Ruth (Sarah Silverman). Ruth doesn't want to have sex with Edward until they are married, even though she is a hooker at a brothel by day.
I have read many critics criticize the many shots of epic scenery in the film. But that did not really bother me. MacFarlane is parodying the Western genre. One thing I always wondered about all of the Western films, from the Wayne era to the Eastwood era, was what’s with all the long shots of scenery? I think MacFarlane cleverly found a way to ready his audience for Western-comedy. I don’t think the scenery shots overwhelm the movie, nor do I find them distracting. I liked the scenery shots and felt they were well-suited for what MacFarlane was trying to do. Plus, the lush cinematography by Michael Barrett is absolutely gorgeous. It feels a little too well-done for a film like this, but I still liked it.
That is a major problem with the film overall though. Everything seems a little too “well-done” for a comedy. When MacFarlane made “Ted” in 2012, I think he created a healthy balance between comedy and storytelling. “Ted” was hilarious and even gross at times, but it also had a story that pulled you in and nabbed at your pleasure center, but it never took its story too far. The best episodes of “Family Guy” have felt like life fables with some toilet humor thrown into the mix as well, but even those episodes are well balanced between a good story and a bundle of good humor. “A Million Ways to Die in the West” seems to be overwhelmed by the story it wants to tell, while also trying to be raunchy and humorous. Seth MacFarlane doesn’t transition between his genres like he did in “Ted” or his best television. The performance by Charlize Theron is really good, but she takes her character so far into the dramatic that it feels like she should be in a different movie. The story between Albert and Anna is too sweet and it takes itself to seriously and it just doesn’t feel right when we see them begin to fall in love, then in the very next seen we see a man poop into a hat. The drama and the romance overwhelm the comedy in this movie and drowns out everything else.
The humor in the movie is both good and bad. Overall, I am just happy that I laughed so much during the film. I feel like MacFarlane really had a good grasp of Western films and Western culture before he sat down to make this movie and for the most part, it pays off. The running gag in the film about photography in the 1800’s is great. The Christopher Lloyd/ “Back To The Future” gag was hilarious and so was the “Django Unchained” joke. I also like how MacFarlane is beginning to assimilate running gags from one film to the next (Look for Giovanni’s dancing scene as well as Ryan Reynolds cameo.) and I loved all of it. At the same time though, I think MacFarlane’s need to be both offbeat and raunchy is a little too much this time. In “Family Guy,” MacFarlane has a healthy balance of offbeat and gross-out humor, and so did “Ted.” But in “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” sometimes the raunchy outdoes the offbeat and everything feels out of focus. Anybody who knows me knows that I have an immature sense of humor. I’ll admit that, no problem. But even that sense has its limits, and I think MacFarlane tries a little too hard in this film.
The performances range from pretty good to mediocre. I think MacFarlane makes a huge statement onscreen. This is the very first time he’s actually acted in a film, rather than provide his voice to a character. I think he does very good work, but much like Theron, he doesn't transition between serious and funny well. He seems to be caught between two extremes and he doesn't quite master either of them. I think Neeson is a non-character all the way through, and he feels more like a cartoon character than an actual character. I think Harris, Ribisi, Silverman and Seyfried have some good material, and I wish their characters had a slightly bigger presence than they did.
I wish I could have been raving about this film tonight. But “A Million Ways to Die in the West” shockingly tiptoes the line between pass and fail. I think MacFarlane captures the essence of the Western well and he understands it well enough to make a funny movie, but he overwhelmed himself with story and drama this time out. That is a bit disappointing coming from a guy who had such a seemingly good grasp on transition in the past. Whatever his next feature will be, I hope it looks more like “Ted” and less like “A Million Ways to Die in the West” because if it’s the later, he might as well stick to TV.
FINAL GRADE: C+