In a post Ted and 2013 Oscars world, there is not much left for Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane to mock and satire. Mining for laughs in his latest movie A Million Ways to Die in the West, which he wrote, directed, and starred in, the funny man unfortunately fails to deliver on that charm we all love. After seeing a teddy bear use produce as a strap-on dildo, A Million Ways to Die in the West is the Mr. Rogers of Seth MacFarlane comedy.
Infusing spaghetti westerns with a romantic comedy sensibility, A Million Ways takes place in 1882 in the fiction town of Old Stump, Arizona. Albert Stark (Seth MacFarlane) is a cowardly sheepherder who is incapable of tending to his own flock. He spends his life complaining about the West, Old Stump, and its people. If he put as much effort in his profession as he did his cynicism, he would be rich beyond belief. And as if life for him couldn’t become more sad, his doe-eyed girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him for a wealthy man named Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), who prides himself on his moustachery business and the luxury to afford wrapped candies. His feeble best friend Edward (Giovani Ribisi) consoles Albert, but even he has his own worries to tend to with his girlfriend Ruth (Sarah Silverman) being the town whore and all – she’s saving herself for Eddie when they get married, of course, as to not displease the lord.
On the other end of the spectrum we have one of the deadliest sharpshooters in the West, the gruff and weathered Clinch (Liam Neeson), who is killing panhandlers for their gold. After taking his latest bounty, Clinch sends his confident, gunslinging wife Anna (Charlize Theron) into Old Stump first with one of his men, Lewis (Evan Jones) – he’s going to meet up with her after the heat on him dies down. When Lewis instigates a bar fight, Albert saves Anna from a nasty accident and the two befriend each other. While Anna teaches Albert how to shoot a gun – yes, a training montage ensues – after he foolishly issues a challenge with Foy to win back Louise, she sees the softer side of the West in Albert. Of course this doesn’t bode well when Clinch strolls into town.
There is something peculiar about A Million Ways that doesn’t resemble anything we’ve seen from MacFarlane before. It’s as if he put on autopilot or was held at gunpoint to develop something more audience friendly. There are no extreme sexual innuendos, teddy bear facials, vulgar racial comments, poking fun at the disabled, clever slams against religions, or even boobs outlined by Garfield’s face – in fact there is no nudity throughout. The only reason why it’s remotely rated R is because of the consistent use of F bombs, graphic sheep penis, one violent saloon fight, and some drug use. Not even the scenes of people dying are that funny – they show the extent of them in the trailers.
Maybe in the case of A Million Ways it’s a “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” scenario. MacFarlane was granted the greenlight for the highly offensive yet heartwarming Ted in exchange for his services to develop a more universal rom com set in the West. But even then, the writing isn’t very smart, the characters are uninteresting, and a lot of the laughs rely on dumb, physical comedy or cheap one liners – something we know MacFarlane would normally have locked down well. The instances where I found myself actually chuckling were few and far between, and of those sparse flashes of laughter it was due to how much effort was needed to reach punchlines.
Fortunately, all of the jokes and gags lay down the foundation for a drug trip Albert goes on with a tribe of Apache Indians, which in my mind is the only true moment of enjoyment within the entire film. But that isn’t enough to praise the writing for the many times everything else swings and misses. Of course, there is a song and dance number with Neil Patrick Harris that is catchy, but uninspired. There are also a handful of cameos, one did bring a smile to my face.
From the few, cheap, unimagined sets to the weak supporting characters that are practically useless, everything feels phoned in. Even the great Liam Neeson is non-threatening as the main villain because he is missing for at least half of the movie. The only shining beacon of life is the honest dialogue between Albert and Anna. They have some chemistry together, but nothing inherently strong enough to spark a memorable romance. Charlize laughs at a lot of Seth’s improv while she delivers her lines he wrote for with finesse. But what their relationship comes down to is the stereotypical rom com tropes we’ve seen played out time and time again, only this time the gender roles are reversed. The reason Ted is able to pull off the rom com genre so well is because of its bonkers concept and no holds barred comedy.
A Million Ways to Die in the West is a very unsatisfying sophomore film effort from MacFarlane that harbors little substance or originality. Although MacFarlane seems to have had a good grasp of the era to inject his social commentary where appropriate because pop culture references would be as irrelevant to that time as they are in Shrek, the story revolved around Old Stump and its dumb townspeople is boring and flaccid. A Million Ways presents nothing new to westerns or romantic comedies, which will be a crushing blow for many fans of Seth MacFarlane’s trademark offensive style.
Tell us what you thought about A Million Ways to Die in the West in the comment section below.
A Million Ways to Die in the West is in theaters Friday, May 30. It was directed by Seth MacFarlane. This film has been rated R For strong crude and sexual content, language throughout, some violence and drug material