Throw a million Old West jokes against a wall and see how many die. That’s writer-director-producer-star Seth MacFarlane’s concept for his
disappointing A Million Ways to Die in the West.
MacFarlane, best known for creating Family Guy, had a solid directorial debut with 2012’s Ted, but A Million Ways features a far less unique
premise and the jokes are hit-and-miss at best.
This will come as no surprise to those familiar with MacFarlane’s style, but the best moments in the film are the irreverent and random ones
that have no real relation to the plot or characters. The actual story here is simply a vehicle to deliver as many crude period jokes as
A Million Ways is far from a bad film, however. It’s sporadically very funny, if not ultimately memorable. Its most inspired bits are probably a
couple of hilarious cameos, such as when MacFarlane’s Albert Stark bumps into Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd himself!) working on his
DeLorean time machine in a fun nod to Back to the Future Part III.
There’s another great cameo just before the credits roll that I won’t spoil here.
The film begins with Stark narrating all the reasons he hates the West and his hometown of Old Stump, including all manner of ridiculous
ways people die on a daily basis. The film certainly gets its mileage out of this recurring gag, but half of them are just tired, crude bits
included for shock value. They aren’t even particularly shocking.
Stark is truly a man out of his time, speaking with modern lingo among a supporting cast of Western clichés. He’s a lowly sheep farmer and
lacks even an ounce of the grit and violence that is valued among his community.
After he cowers his way out of a duel, his girlfriend, the prim and proper Louise played by Amanda Seyfried, abruptly dumps him.
Meanwhile, in another film, Liam Neeson’s Clinch Leatherwood shoots a prospector and steals his gold. I guess he’s the bad guy.
His wife, Anna (Charlize Theron), is sent to the town of Old Stump to wait for him or something.
The film then promptly forgets about Neeson until the final act when the story abruptly shifts gears to reach a more respectable running
Stark saves Anna during a bar fight and she offers to help him win back Louise, now in a relationship with the owner of the local
‘Moustachery,’ played by a hammy Neil Patrick Harris.
There’s also a random subplot with Sarah Silverman as a local prostitute and Giovanni Ribisi as her suitor, but the less said about that the
better. Its only witty moment is when Ribisi tells Stark they have never had sex because they’re Christians and are waiting for marriage.
Anna and Stark form an obvious attachment. They both speak modern day English, after all!
Anna is the polar opposite of the dull, pretentious Louise, and MacFarlane and Theron are both pretty decent in their roles. They are fun to
watch together and both show excellent comic timing in fun sequences where Anna teaches Stark how to shoot, along with a recurring gag
about a man in Texas who actually smiled in a photograph. There are even a couple slightly more substantive scenes where they discuss
why Stark is even interested in Louise.
Forget about any real plot complexity or subtlety, though. This love story is as cliché and predictable as possible. Spoiler! Anna and Stark
fall for each other! Who would have seen that coming?
When they finally figure that out (after everyone in the audience has), the screenplay suddenly remembers the Clinch Leatherwood thread
and reintroduces Neeson.
Up to this point, the entire film has been focused on an impending duel between Stark and Louise’s new boyfriend, Foy. After it’s over, the
film awkwardly tacks on the showdown between Stark and Leatherwood.
Luckily, MacFarlane doesn’t rely too heavily on his action sequences, because he shows little inspiration with them, particularly one where
Leatherwood’s posse chase Stark on horseback towards a train.
MacFarlane does boost the excitement by showcasing Joel McNeely’s roaring, unabashedly energetic score. Many modern Westerns (and
films in general) shy away from the kind of optimistic, sweeping styles of old, but the compositions of McNeely, and the vision of MacFarlane
to see beyond the modern score clichés, yield an incredibly fun orchestral score that boosts the film in many sequences.
A Million Ways to Die in the West definitely has its charm. The cast is good and the comical portrayal of the Old West does supply some
hilarious gags. Unfortunately, a few too many jokes fall flat, and the plot and characters are as generic and unimaginative as they come.
It may provide enough entertainment for MacFarlane’s loyal fan base, but I reckon it will impress few others.
(out of four)
|A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN
Directed by: Seth MacFarlane
Written by: Seth MacFarlane & Alec Sulkin & Wellesley
Starring: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Amanda
Seyfried, Liam Neeson, Giovanni Ribisi
Music by: Joel McNeely
Cinematography by: Michael Barrett
Released: May 30, 2014; 116 Minutes