This review was originally published at milowickipedia.wordpress.com
As the preeminent farce comedian and satirist in America today, Seth MacFarlane has expanded his realm off of the television screen and into movie theaters. With the surprising success of Ted in the summer of 2012, it makes sense that MacFarlane tries his hand on the big screen again, this time serving up a parody of the western genre. After all, Mel Brooks (the premier satirist of Hollywood’s previous generations) did the same in Blazing Saddles, perhaps his most beloved work.
Unfortunately for MacFarlane, A Million Ways To Die In The West lacks consistent humor, and often devolves into long stretches of vulgarity and scatological gags. Combine that with a nearly 2-hour runtime, and you have a mediocre-paced comedy with fewer laughs than expected. The star-studded cast and host of cameos are not enough to mop up the disappointing end product.
Set in Arizona in the 1880s, the meek sheep farmer Stark (MacFarlane) deals with the heartbreak of being dumped by his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) while trying to survive what he calls “the worst time and place in history.” A gorgeous gunslinger (Charlize Theron) changes Stark and tries to grant him the courage and strength to square off against her estranged husband (Liam Neeson), the most ruthless gunfighter in the West.
With the exception of the unapologetic anachronisms (“Oh no I didn’t” one character quips), the plot unfolds like a pretty traditional western. The purpose of a satirical comedy and the key to effectively parodying a popular genre is to point out, exploit, and ultimately subvert the expectations such films usually provide. However, A Million Ways, while it does show some signs of self-aware humor, it more often than not finds itself adhering to the plot conventions of westerns more than transcending them. The result leads to several unpleasant stretches where the plot tries too hard to move forward, with ostensible attempts at any kind of humor.
What makes this awkward is Seth MacFarlane’s acting. Without a doubt, he is one of the most accomplished voice actors of our time, and has a great knack for timing and for writing jokes. That’s why Ted worked so well, as it played out like one of his Family Guy characters romping around in the real world. But once the animation fades away, we’re left to realize that MacFarlane just doesn’t have the acting chops to carry the more serious stretches of the film. It isn’t for lack of effort, phoning in a performance, or anything like that; it’s just that sometimes MacFarlane doesn’t really know what to do with his face. This is understandable for someone most comfortable in the recording studio, but it makes his extended screen time a little more awkward. He doesn’t yet have the acting talent just yet to merit starring in his own movies (à la Woody Allen), so it would behoove him to find someone else to star in his next big-screen comedy.
This acting discrepancy is exacerbated by the talent surrounding MacFarlane on the screen. Theron and Neeson lead the way, and they have visible amounts of fun shining in roles with much more vulgarity than their traditional roles generally afford them. Both show a good deal of comedic prowess, all the while reminding us why they’ve endured as some of our favorite actors. Also giving their all is Neil Patrick Harris, who returns to the big screen for his first non-Harold and Kumar appearance in a while. As the dimwitted but well-mustachioed new beau of Seyfried, his character provides some witty bouts of buffoonish dialogue with the much more deadpan MacFarlane. Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman also enter the fray as a hyper-sexualized model of a dysfunctional Old West couple, as the town prude and town prostitute respectively. All of these fine actors do their best to take some of the self-inflicted burden off of MacFarlane’s shoulders, but their efforts fall consistently just a little short.
There are plenty of laughs to be had throughout the film, but the comedic output is hit and miss nonetheless. I will shamefully admit to laughing heartily during a minutes-too-long sequence of Neil Patrick Harris vacating his bowels into a bystander’s hat, but scatological humor is not the way to go to get anything more than a few cheap chuckles. I expected to hear some scathing self-aware zingers on the condition of westerns, but instead it just felt like a 2-hour episode of Family Guy, with a myriad of non sequiturs being shoehorned into a plot that consistently felt the need to be pushed forward. The jokes that landed were very well-earned (including probably the best last-frame joke of the year so far), but the stretches of screentime without a hearty laugh left me feeling akin to the tumbleweeds rolling through a deserted main drag.
And so, although it’s well-enough made and features some good work for a slew of bigtime actors, A Million Ways To Die In The West certainly lives up to its title, but not with the wall-to-wall humor audiences have come to expect from MacFarlane. Hopefully he will learn from this endeavor and reaffirm that his strengths lie in the comedic writing and not in acting or drama, then use this to make Ted 2 and whatever future projects he has planned much more gratifying. A Million Ways was not a wholeheartedly unpleasant experience, and there were plenty of moments to chuckle warmly, but a pervading sense of disappointment and a lack of investment in MacFarlane’s protagonist hampered my ability to fully enjoy myself. I highly suggest a viewing of Blazing Saddles right after seeing A Million Ways to remind yourself what effective satire really looks like.