A Million Ways to Die in the West
Directed by Seth MacFarlane. Starring Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Liam Neeson, Giovanni Ribisi, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman, Christopher Hagen, Wes Studi, Matt Clark. (2014, R, 115 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 30, 2014
Seth MacFarlane is Hollywood’s barbarian at the gate, who recently started kicking down the barriers that have ghettoized him in television animation. (He’s the creator of such anarchic comedies as Family Guy, The Cleveland Show, and American Dad!). Yet after the surprising, blockbuster success in 2012 of his movie Ted – in which MacFarlane (the film’s co-writer, director, and producer) appears onscreen only as the voice of a stuffed teddy bear – and MacFarlane’s follow-up assault on Hollywood manners as the much-maligned host of the 2013 Academy Awards ceremony, the multihyphenate now adds a new notch to his belt as the leading man of this new, live-action feature, A Million Ways to Die in the West. It’s the first in the film’s numerous overindulgences, although none is grievous enough to scuttle this irreverent comedy.
MacFarlane’s comedic approach has always been that of throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. It’s no different this time out, and the jokes are so plentiful that the odds are in this movie’s favor for a substantial number of them to succeed. Destined, however, to become the perennial undercard in future double bills with Blazing Saddles – the pinnacle of Western spoofs – A Million Ways to Die in the West will always seem weaker by comparison. That’s not to say that MacFarlane’s film isn’t funny, but rather that his creative talent could benefit from more judicious editing and focus. MacFarlane’s id runs rampant with no signs of a superego (internal or external) to rein it in.
Despite this excess of excrement and other body-focused humor (A Million Ways to Die in the West has the best explosive-diarrhea-in-the-middle-of-the-street scene since Bridesmaids, and I don't know whether to categorize that as a dubious distinction or a cultural trend), MacFarlane’s comedic voice comes through loud and clear. Playing Albert Stark, a nebbishy sheep farmer on the 1882 frontier, MacFarlane is gunning for our collective mythos of the unsullied West. Like a Woody Allen rant about the dangers lurking in the countryside, this film takes its title from Albert’s constant observations about the multitude of hazards that befall ordinary men in the Old West. The dangers come not just from gunslingers, Indians, poisonous snakes, and the like: Death can come innocently from tumbleweeds, bad medicine, a block of falling ice, and even flatulence. When his girlfriend (Seyfried) dumps him for the foppish, well-to-do proprietor of a mustache emporium (the reliably amusing Harris), Albert astutely decides he’ll be better off moving to San Francisco. Then Anna (Theron) arrives in town and convinces Albert to stick around for another week, which provides him with some happy moments as the pair evade the various deathtraps waiting everywhere.
Theron brings a rarely seen comedic zest to her character, even though her role is underwritten, as are the roles of Albert’s best friends Edward (Ribisi) and Ruth (Silverman), whose relationship is based solely on jokes pertaining to Edward’s virginity and Ruth’s status as the most popular whore in town who, nevertheless, wants to wait for marriage before having sex with Edward. Superfluous hallucinations after imbibing a pot brownie and, later, peyote are needless distractions, as are the one-joke cameos by the likes of Christopher Lloyd, Gilbert Gottfried, Ewan McGregor, and Bill Maher. The film’s modern language keeps A Million Ways grounded as a spoof. And although it seems foolish to discredit something for its surfeit of humor, MacFarlane can only improve as a filmmaker by honing his storytelling skills and swallowing some anti-diarrheals.