“Somebody here…is gonna die.”
Reviewing comedy is as subjective as the writing practice gets. What I think is funny, some countless others might not find humorous in the slightest, and vice versa. When it comes to big screen comedies, expectations and individual sense of humor is paramount. I like when comedies have heart and respect when they do their damndest at having a plotline. I also like when the humor has been given a lot of thought all the way from conception to delivery; above all, comedies have to have a voice. Nothing is worse than when you hear a zillion wannabe jokes go by and none of them feel like the same person could have come up with them. This relates to creativity, and humor, at the end of the day, is a significant branch of creativity. Still, there might be some person out there who laughs at every single one of those zillion jokes. That doesn’t mean they lack a sense of humor (though they might have a skewed one), but his or her expectations are simply not the same as mine. And here we are, back at the top of the argument, in that telling friends, families, readers, etc. that a new comedy is either good or bad is unequivocal subjectivity. It’s just a fact.
And it’s with this that I preface my distaste for A Million Ways to Die in the West, a sheenless and drab comedy thoughtlessly co-written and directed by Family Guy wunderkind Seth MacFarlane, who also plays the lead. Stepping in front of the cameras for the first time in his human form (no foul-mouthed teddy bear or day-drinking talking dog to adopt his voice here), the singsong funnyman fails to utilize many of the talents that he possesses and haphazardly whips together a choppy western comedy that isn’t self-aware enough to be clever, isn’t self-deprecating enough to be endearing, and isn’t aggressive enough to be a noteworthy personal stepping stone. For a creator who thrived on pushing the envelope with animation, MacFarlane has twice jumped to the big screen with his only major accomplishment being that his characters can now say the ‘F’ word; unable to grasp the long-form storytelling format and constantly rerouting back to his monotonous ‘cutaway’ comic formula, A Million Ways to Die in the West is the length of four episodes of Family Guy, with the same level of irreverence only sporadically revealing the once so obvious, gutter-headed voice now afraid of his own polarizing wit.
Albert Stark (MacFarlane) could possibly be the worst sheepherder in the entire Wild West, but he’s at the very least the worst in the decrepit little town of Old Stump, Arizona. He isn’t committed to his job, but it tends to keep him out of trouble…except for when his one mentally challenged sheep ends up on the roof of his house and a couple of others end up chowing down a neighbor’s entire crop supply. Albert is careless but far from stupid, and he’s more than afraid of the deathly dangers that hide in the dusty landscape of early 1880’s America. After being dumped by his snotty girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), he considers packing a bag and moving to San Francisco, but a bar fight at the local saloon forces his path to cross with that of the mysterious Anna (Charlize Theron), a beautiful new addition to Old Stump who takes an immediate liking to the sarcastic Albert. He tells her about his breakup, and she urges him to spring back to his feet, especially when they encounter Louise and her new boyfriend, the über-fashionable and moustache’d entrepreneur, Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). As Anna’s encouragement continues, Albert’s feelings begin to sway toward her, which gets incredibly complicated when her notorious gun-slinger of a husband, Clinch (Liam Neeson), arrives in Old Stump looking for blood.
In a brisk eighty or ninety minutes, MacFarlane could’ve assuredly told this simple story and fill it with tons of mindless derision and absurdity without ever losing his footing, but at nearly 2 hours it’s obvious when MacFarlane is unsure of himself. In 22-minute long serialized television, MacFarlane has followed the likes of Matt Groening and South Park masterminds, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, by turning animation into a gross surreality with wrap around plot structures, spikey cultural content, disruptive commentary, self-referential mashups, and geeky fanboy subservience. Family Guy, in its prime, is still shocking for network television, let alone animation, and though it’s gotten substantially more hit or miss in its elder years, it continues to hit hardest if and whenever it can. MacFarlane’s big screen debut, Ted, was an event of sorts as it gave MacFarlane, who found his treasured familial male-centric cartoon not only on the edge of cancellation but actually cancelled a number of times and also resurrected as if by incessant prayer to the Lord of Light himself, a chance to fully expose himself to adult audiences. He did, for the most part, and managed to never let the novelty of a profanity-loving Bostonian bed pet wear out, even when his joke-at-a-time humor gave way to a bizarre “plot.” With its countless flaws, Ted was still a very vocal movie, and MacFarlane’s voice was heard through and through, not least of all through the titular bear himself. In A Million Ways to Die in the West, that voice is mostly absent, and when it does manage to mine out a laugh or two, it’s nothing above a chuckle quickly followed by a face-palming head shake.
Apparently there is such a thing as too irreverent. A Million Ways to Die in the West is a million and one things happening on the same screen with so little connectivity between them that by the time we get to a pre-third act drug sequence, we’re not entirely convinced this bit is supposed to stand on its own because its no more inexplicable than anything that precedes it. Sadly enough, this doesn’t come as a result of MacFarlane’s homage-obsessive geekiness, but rather an abundance of acceptably funny ideas over zero dependably hilarious ones. For instance, the trailers have peeked at the supposed motif of innocent town folk being killed by giant blocks of ice and runaway bulls and other strangely violent mutilations, but that bit fades away rather quickly. There’s also a couple played by Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman (expectedly funny in the few scenes she’s in) who are Catholic and practicing abstinence even though Silverman’s character is a prostitute, and Neil Patrick Harris owns an exclusive moustache cosmetics store and has a band sing a song about moustaches, and Liam Neeson is typecasted as a villain, etcetera etcetera. Each of these things are mildly amusing for a second when you think about them, but then MacFarlane strings them along through some other variations of jokes and silly thoughts before the screen cuts to black.
Even worse, MacFarlane’s infinite arousal for all things pop culture doesn’t just take a backseat, it’s nearly nonexistent. Outside of a couple of Back to the Future Part III references, one being a direct reference that is quite funny and the other being Joel McNeely’s sweet Alan Silvestri-inspired score, A Million Ways to Die in the West is cleansed of this key MacFarlane comic staple. I was hoping that he would take a David Wain route and try to deconstruct the Western film genre, or at least take a moment to sardonically villainize its tropes, but Seth plays it mostly straight and aggravatingly tame. The humor is more or less diegetic with few un-PC snaps, and I think it lands less and less throughout as a result. Not to mention that notably comic people, like Amanda Seyfried (c’mon, Mean Girls) and Liam Neeson (watch the pilot of HBO’s Life’s Too Short),make appearances to little affect aside a dozen cameos that check off a certain box on MacFarlane’s formula checklist while providing little besides a “Hey! That’s _________!” exclamation to yourself or a friend.
As an actor, MacFarlane is equally as inconsistent, seemingly confused at what kind of movie he is in from scene to scene. When it comes to obnoxious comedy, he’s dreadful, when it comes to asides and throw away lines, he more or less nails them all, and when it comes to quieter scenes (finding heart in comedy is still above MacFarlane’s abilities) he’s relatively charming. Having balanced so many different duties in the past, I think he’s assuming a lot migrating into work with prominent actors (some even have Academy Awards) and while they do the best that they can, it’s apparently overwhelming for MacFarlane himself. That being said, Theron is having obvious fun saying dirty things and smirking about, and Neil Patrick Harris is hilarious all his own. There’s one (wait…ONE) seriously gross out sight gag that involves Harris’ Foy and while it’s arguably unnecessary, it receives some earned laughs. He also nonchalantly drops the catchphrase, “Challenge accepted,” which might be the cleverest written bit in the entire film.
A Million Ways to the Die in the West is boringly plotted and brainlessly scripted, leaving the weight of its success entirely on the next joke or random cameo to make audiences forget just how stupid some of the stuff is that they are watching on screen. It’s not a downright terrible film, for it’s never a pain to watch, but its merits are few and its point is a giant question mark. I believe Seth MacFarlane has a really good film in him, whether it be as a performer or as a director (note: Ted is not a good film), and if a musical is handed his way he would do well to take a stab at it. If he’s fine with superficial jokes that fumble about and are stapled one to the next, than A Million Ways to Die in the West remains in MacFarlane’s wheelhouse, if hardly signature. But if this gifted singer/dancer/personality with one of the edgiest cartoons in TV history to his name and a previous host of the Academy Awards wants to be more than just the king of fart jokes and obscure niche references, than he needs to set his sights on a project polarly opposite to what he’s just made.
He might not want to act like he cares that much, or that he tries to hard, but by doing so it looks like he’s trying doubly hard and cares far too much…A Million Ways to Die in the West is not worth dying for.
Review by Mike Murphy