May 31, 2014

SHOWBUZZDAILY Film Review: “A Million Ways To Die In the West”


A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST:  Not Even For Free – They Don’t Include “Die Laughing”

Seth MacFarlane, out from behind his high-concept animated and fantasy premises, has a surprisingly retro, even conservative sense of humor.  For all the many, many four-letter words in A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST, and all the gags about farts, vaginas and explosive diarrhea (complete with–you guessed it–a close-up), the movie itself turns to a trope at least 65 years old, all the way back to Bob Hope in The Paleface:  the wisecracking tenderfoot on the prairie who has to find his inner hero to vanquish the bad guy and win his true love.  Woody Allen transformed that archetype with his own urban braininess in the early part of his career, in movies like Sleeper and Love and Death, but MacFarlane has no such ambitions, much less the desire to push the envelope of the whole western genre like Mel Brooks did in Blazing Saddles 40 years ago.  A Million Ways aims for nothing but the lowest-hanging comic fruit, and MacFarlane, along with his co-writers, longtime associates Wellesley Wild and Alec Sulkin (they created Dads for his production company) don’t even do a great job of reaching for that.

This is MacFarlane’s first time in front of the camera in a major role, and he makes little pretense at even pretending to “act.”  Playing sheep farmer Albert Stark, he presents the same persona that he does in interviews, and that he did as host of the Oscars:  a well-groomed but slightly blobby smug guy on the verge of middle-age who (more or less) amiably considers himself superior to everyone around him.  Albert hates living in the west circa 1870, and one of the movie’s only amusing running gags is the one set out in the title, as townspeople constantly find far-fetched and ignominious ways to die, causing no one else much concern.  The plot, such as it is, is set into motion when Albert’s longtime girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him for local moustache-shop impresario Foy (Neil Patrick Harris).  Albert is determined to win her back, so much so that he takes no more than a friendly interest in the new gal in town, Anna (Charlize Theron), who’s gorgeous and awfully good with a gun.  They become buddies, but what he doesn’t know is that she’s the wife of notorious outlaw on the run Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), and when Albert challenges Foy to a duel and Anna offers to tutor him on how to shoot, the two of them become closer and things move toward the inevitable conclusion.

It’s a story basic enough to serve as the framework for just about anything, but MacFarlane and his co-writers do nothing more than smear smirky one-liners on it.  Very little is even a fraction as imaginative as a typical episode of Family Guy or American Dad, and that unwisely puts the emphasis on charm, of which MacFarlane has very little as a performer once he’s (literally) using his own voice.  His customary air of arrogance masquerading as insecurity might actually be funny, if it were used in the right way, but it would take some effort and insight to find the comic angle and setting, and that’s more than he wants to put in.  Even the occasional use of anachronistic cameo appearances from more recent western comedies, or by contemporary comics, feels half-hearted, thrown in because a buddy of his happened to visit the set.

MacFarlane has improved as a director to some extent since Ted.  Certainly he has a genuine affection for the wide-screen panoramas of old westerns, and the photography by Michael Barrett is far more handsome than the TV-type lighting they offered in Ted.  MacFarlane is also a devotee of old-time symphonic musical scores–he even uses them on his cartoons, one of the last remaining TV producers who has the clout to insist on a full orchestra–and there’s a rich, classically Hollywood accompaniment by Joel McNeely.  The movie is 15 minutes too long, and gets especially laborious toward the end with a lengthy appearance by the local injuns, but Million Ways is still better paced than Ted.

The movie’s chief saving grace, though, is Charlize Theron.  MacFarlane doesn’t give her many laughs–Anna’s job is basically to tell Albert how absolutely wonderful he is (and mean it) and laugh uproariously at all his jokes–but Theron has such an easy, relaxed movie star charm that it rubs off a bit on her co-star; when the two of them have some extended scenes together and can establish a performance rhythm, MacFarlane starts to seem a little bit likable.  No one else on screen manages that.  MacFarlane remains the President and leading member of the Giovanni Ribisi Is Funny, Damn It! fan club, here appearing as Albert’s idiot best friend, and Sarah Silverman continues to have no luck at all as a movie actress, taking on the role of the local prostitute (are there many anal sex jokes?  Of course there are many anal sex jokes) who’ll have sex with everyone except her boyfriend Ribisi, because they’re Christians.  Seyfried is a good sport about a running gag that concerns her big eyes, but her character is basically a superficial bitch, and Harris plays his role like it’s one of the black-out fantasy sequences in How I Met Your Mother where you’d see Barney in whatever tall tale he was telling.  Neeson, in what amounts to an extended cameo, is professional in his straight-man villain role.

If a Million Ways To Die In the West had an original, ambitious take on its subject, one could forgive it its relative lack of laughs, and if it were consistently hilarious, it wouldn’t matter that its approach was so banal.  As it is, though, the movie is just a flat exercise in adding 14-year old boy humor to the stuff of older, better comedies.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."