Directed by: Seth MacFarlane
Premise: Set in the old west, a cowardly sheep farmer (Seth MacFarlane) falls for a mysterious woman (Charlize Theron) who is the wife of a notorious gunslinger (Liam Neeson).
What Works: A Million Ways to Die in the West is an uneven movie but at its best the picture recalls other Western comedies like Blazing Saddles, Three Amigos, and City Slickers. Like those movies, A Million Ways to Die in the West was made with the history of the Western in mind and it frequently plays on the clichés of the genre. This is Seth MacFarlane’s second directorial feature, and he proves to be a competent director insofar as the filmmaking is concerned. His first movie, 2012’s Ted, was a small-scaled film but A Million Ways to Die in the West is a much bigger production and MacFarlane demonstrates a sure hand with the bigger scope. The action scenes are well executed, the film has a broad, handsome look, and it includes a drug-fueled dream sequence that, from a technical and filmmaking standpoint, is especially well done. As a comedy, A Million Ways to Die in the West is consistently amusing. None of the gags make for huge laughs, but what the filmmakers lack in impact they make up for in density. Few recent comedies have had this many jokes crammed together in a single picture and even if the gags aren’t howlers they do come frequently enough that the filmmakers keep the viewer smiling throughout the movie.
What Doesn’t: How viewers will feel about A Million Ways to Die in the West is going to depend largely on how they feel about Seth MacFarlane. He is credited as the writer, director, producer, and star of this movie and so it is very much his show. But MacFarlane has overextended himself by taking the lead acting role. Seth MacFarlane is good at one thing: being Seth MacFarlane. He’s a performer, not an actor, and he is unable to carry the movie. The lead role of this film should have been cast by someone with broader acting skills and who could elevate the material. With MacFarlane in the lead, the movie comes across like an episode of Saturday Night Live. The humor of A Million Ways to Die in the West is consistent with MacFarlane’s other work and that is to the movie’s detriment. Firstly, the picture is crammed with cameos and pop culture references. A lot of those references are obscure and many will be lost on anyone under the age of twenty-five. Secondly, A Million Ways to Die in the West utilizes the same kind of a stoner jokes, toilet humor, and deliberate political incorrectness that has defined MacFarlane’s television work like Family Guy. Those are fine ways to draw a laugh but the overall impression of the movie is one of laziness. The jokes of A Million Ways to Die in the West are uninspired and frequently obvious. Where MacFarlane gets himself into the most trouble is in the film’s deliberate political incorrectness. In many other cases, namely in Family Guy, racist and sexist jokes are made by idiotic characters; the idea is that we laugh not at the joke itself but at its social unacceptability and at the foolishness of the person telling it. That’s a flimsy conceit but it generally works. In A Million Ways to Die in the West these same kinds of jokes are made by characters who we are supposed to sympathize with and so the conceit collapses, and all we’re left with are rude jokes made for the sake of being obnoxious. The humor of A Million Ways to Die in the West is also problematic because of the movie’s inconsistent tone. In an effort to deliver as many jokes as possible, the filmmakers shift radically from scene to scene and the movie goes from dramatic moments of violence to scatological gags to sentimental romance to psychedelic fantasy. The tone is so uneven that the viewer can never settle in and enjoy the movie.
Bottom Line: A Million Ways to Die in the West manages to be enjoyable because it’s so off-the-wall. The movie will satisfy fans of Seth MacFarlane’s other work but even they will have to admit that this film is mediocre in virtually every respect.
Episode: #494 (June 9, 2014)