A Million Ways to Die in the West

Clint Eastwood and John Wayne – tack on two more. Seth MacFarlane, Academy Award winner Charlize Theron, Giovanni Ribisi and Academy Award nominee Liam Neeson star in A Million Ways to Die in the West.

A Million Ways to Die in the WestCast of Characters:
Albert Stark – Seth MacFarlane
Anna Leatherwood – Charlize Theron
Louise – Amanda Seyfried
Edward – Giovanni Ribisi
Foy – Neil Patrick Harris
Ruth – Sarah Silverman
Clinch Leatherwood – Liam Neeson

Director – Seth MacFarlane
Screenplay – Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin & Wellesley Wild
Producer – Jason Clark, Seth MacFarlane & Scott Stuber
Rated R for strong crude and sexual content, language throughout, some violence and drug material

In 1882 Arizona, Albert Stark (Seth MacFarlane) is a sheep herder – and a lousy one at that – who loses his beloved girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) to the wealthy Foy (Neil Patrick Harris) after withdrawing from a gun duel. Soon after, he meets the lovely Anna Leatherwood (Charlize Theron), who slowly begins to build up his confidence. That confidence leads to Albert unwisely challenging Foy to a duel, thinking he can win Louise back if he wins the duel. That said, he can’t shoot for the life of him, but Anna buys him a week’s worth of time.

Being quite the sharpshooter herself, Anna trains Albert how to shoot. They begin to bond and just when it seems likes sparks are about to fly between the two of them, Anna’s outlaw husband Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson) – the most notorious gunslinger in the West – returns to get revenge on the man who took his gal.

Co-writer/director Seth MacFarlane has made enough fame and fortune to retire off of Family Guy alone, but he managed to strike even more success after getting bit by the filmmaking bug and giving us Ted. Returning with the same set of co-writers (Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild), MacFarlane delivers his send-up of the Old West.

The plot here is extremely minimal, which is to the film’s benefit. Pretty much, this is just one gag after another about how much MacFarlane thinks the West sucked, so he’s gonna throw as many jokes as he can at the screen and see how many stick. Parody films of that nature have worked wonders before in films like Young Frankenstein, Airplane! and, more fittingly here, Blazing Saddles. The risk with this film, as it is with most any comedy, is that you’re at the mercy of whether or not the viewers find the joke funny. Here, yeah, some of them work, but when they don’t, you can literally here the crickets chirping.

Certain jokes work, but as the case with Family Guy (a show that’s always been either extremely hit or miss with me), the repetitive factor wears your down. We don’t get one joke about Neil Patrick Harris (who, in fairness, is involved in one of the better scatological bits, only to be ruined by an unnecessary sight gag) and how his mustache elevates his status in the town. We get 50 million more. There’s a recurring joke between Giovanni Ribisi and his fiancee, played by Sarah Silverman, who’s a whore that practically bangs fifteen men a day, yet still wants to save herself for marriage with Ribisi. It works once or twice. The third, fourth and fifth time I started to get annoyed that MacFarlane, once again, falls back on his schtick that assumes I didn’t get the joke the first few times, so he repeatedly rams it down my throat a few times more.

There’s also a funny cameo that would’ve worked so much better had they not have revealed it in the most recent trailer. If you haven’t seen it, I’ll play nice and not spoil it.

There’s no denying MacFarlane’s talent at voice-over work. The man has a voice perfectly tailored for it. His acting here isn’t that bad; however, he just doesn’t have a screen presence. You’re not seeing Albert Stark. You’re seeing Seth MacFarlane attempt to fit a character. To his credit, he does slightly riff on that fact that his presence is anachronistic to the setting, but it still doesn’t take away from how detracting it is. In spite of that, though, the lovely Charlize Theron is a welcome presence who somehow manages to elevate MacFarlane’s performance just a bit when she’s next to him. Theron hasn’t gotten much opportunity to show her chops for comedy. Sure, she’s delivered outstanding dramatic work in Monster (for which she won Best Actress) and North Country, but she also was so good in her recurring guest spot on Arrested Development and Jason Reitman’s Young Adult (the closest someone like Patton Oswalt will ever get to hooking up with Theron).

Most of the supporting cast provide some life to their rather uninteresting roles. Post-How I Met Your Mother Neil Patrick Harris commits a rare feat by making a laxative scatological bit funny with a combination of his physical comedy and a hand-slapping away gag between him and a side character (a bit first done in Family Guy), but then MacFarlane actually has to cut to a unnecessary shot of the diarrhea, which immediately dead-ends the laugh. There was no need for it since we already get the point of what’s going from Harris’s acting. Giovanni Ribisi is an underrated talent that has the ability to switch from drama to comedy, from the sleaziest characters (Ted) to the nicest guy you’ve ever met with one finger snap, yet his talent is eventually wasted in the aforementioned joke between him and Silverman that wears out its welcome as the film continues on.

This also marks the first time I’ve ever seen a lazy, phoned-in performance from Liam Neeson. I get it. Everyone was gung-ho about Taken, and now all they wanna see from Neeson is him playing the badass, but I’m tired of it. If you’ve ever seen the Life’s Too Short sketch between him, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, you’d known Neeson has an incredible knack for comedy, and I wish his character was given more than just the one-note that it is.

What made a film like Blazing Saddles, which everyone has been comparing this too before it was even released, work was that Mel Brooks never once took his foot off the pedal. He delivered jokes that ranged from slapstick, scatological, witty, racial, and satirical. They were all pitch-perfectly timed. A Million Ways to Die in the West wants to be the absurdist take on the West that Blazing Saddles was, but only tries to be so about 75% of the time. The remaining 25% is the forced heart of the story that we’ve seen before (man using a woman to win his ex back, only to fall in love with the new woman) and comes off a bit self-congratulatory.

A Million Ways to Die in the West has the same raunchy-factor that Ted had, but lacks the cleverness and the genuine heart that was found in the latter film. MacFarlane has the skill to set up a nice filmmaking career and can’t be faulted for a lack of effort here. There are some solid supporting turns as well. That said, if the goal of this film is whether the jokes work or not, then it’s a missed opportunity. There were about two or three good laughs, a couple snickers, but the rest fell on deaf ears.

I give A Million Ways to Die in the West a C- (★★).


6/2/14        What the Hell Were They Thinking?!
6/3/14        Benjamin’s Stash
6/6/14        Anna
6/6/14        Edge of Tomorrow
6/7/14        The Fault in Our Stars

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