During the opening credits of A Million Ways to the Die in the West, Seth MacFarlane’s name appears in gigantic letters four times. Take heed of this as a warning, this film is a vanity project, but a funny bit of indulgence.
It’s 1882 in America, the Wild West, and a cowardly farmer, Albert (MacFarlane), buys his way out of a gunfight much to the ire of his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) who promptly dumps him. While Albert is downing his sorrows in booze, he saves the mysterious Anna (Charlize Theron) during a bar fight and she agrees to repay the debt by helping Albert prove to his ex-girlfriend that he’s not a wuss.
MacFarlane is a one man band on A Million Ways: writing, directing, producing and acting. There’s no excuse for thinking that you’re going to get anything else humour wise from the creator of Family Guy, American Dad and Ted. As a comedic craftsman MacFarlane is torn between genuine wit and the lowest common denominator. A voiceover in the beginning clearly states the self-aware nature of the film that feels like a Jerry Seinfeld stand-up bit “what’s the deal with the wild west?” From this platform A Million Ways excels and there are gags about stilted old timey photography, low currency and the ridiculously short life expectancy of people at the time. Often, MacFarlane stretches it too far in an attempt to offend with jokes about retardation and Parkinson’s disease that land with a thud. You can feel the desperation when MacFarlane resorts to explosive diarrhoea jokes to try and grab a chunk of the Adam Sandler market. Not only does the gross out humour sully the film, but it shows MacFarlane’s lack of confidence in his own comedic intelligence and the audience.
The plot only exists to provide the set-up for the next gag but not in a way that a spoof film operates. Rapid fire jokes come first and plot comes second in a spoof film. A Million Ways tries to put plot at the forefront and weave in the comedy. The results are uneven. MacFarlane seems to be living out a frat boy fantasy with a majority of the story featuring the lowly, heartbroken, ‘nice guy’ Albert being constantly affirmed by Anna. In these moments the humour is put on hold to service the romantic projections of young dude-bros to ‘bag a babe’; it’s tiresome and the momentum of the film becomes stilted. Theron is good as the tough, gun-slinging Anna, even when she is reduced to laughing at whatever MacFarlane is saying. The actress is trapped by the need for her character to conform to becoming a romantic interest when Theron is clearly elevating a bland role.
The supporting cast make an impact with their minimum screen time that includes Albert’s buddies played by Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman that feature predominantly in a hit-and-miss rolling gag about prostitution. Neil Patrick Harris gives the perfect amount of smug to a wealthy moustachioed lothario and Seyfried appears for a few self-depreciating quips; she’s a good sport. Liam Neeson plays Liam Neeson, and that’s about all he does, while all other cameos appear like a series of humble brags for MacFarlane.
You have to do a little trash diving with A Million Ways to Die in the West but it excels when deconstructing the Western genre.
Cameron Williams - follow Cam on Twitter here: @MrCamW