Review: 'A Million Ways to Die in the West' is Better Than You Think
by Ethan Anderton
May 30, 2014
The latest victim of false expectations and unbridled vitriol is A Million Ways to Die in the West, the latest comedic effort from writer, director and star Seth MacFarlane. In 2012, the "Family Guy" creator made his directorial debut, along with his first major film role voicing the titular raunchy teddy bear in Ted. But now MacFarlane takes the lead front and center, with no visual effects to hide his face, and he's getting pummeled with bad reviews harder than the giant ice block that crushes a townsman in this Old West comedy. However, the film is not abysmal, has plenty of big laughs, and is deserving of much more praise.
It's 1882 in Arizona, and MacFarlane plays Albert, a wimpy but sarcastic and neurotic sheep farmer who absolutely despises living in the Old West. As he frequently explains and encounters, anything and everything wants to kill you. Whether it's gunslingers, wolves, cholera, a random charging bull or even the doctor, it's no wonder Stark's girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) is excited about the prospect about living to be 35. But that's why she realizes that she doesn't want to waste her time with a chump who is too cowardly to engage in a gunfight, let alone one who doesn't know how to shoot a gun.
Meanwhile, Charlize Theron rolls into town as Anna, wife of the deadliest gunslinger and criminal in the territory, Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson). She's stuck waiting for her husband to return from pillaging gold in the mountains from old prospectors. As someone who also hates life in the west, she takes a liking to Albert, and has no problem pretending to be his girlfriend as they cavort around the town fair in order to make Louise, with new boyfriend Foy (Neil Patrick Harris) and his glorious mustache in tow. The typical blossoming romance unfolds as Anna also teaches Albert how to shoot a gun after scheduling in impromptu gunfight with Foy, that is until Clinch returns, forcing Albert to choose between running away or being a real man and standing up for the woman he loves.
Undoubtedly, the predictable and familiar story is the weakest part of A Million Ways to Die in the West, but that's because this is the comedy where the jokes are what truly matter. Since this is a western comedy, the easiest and readily available comparison is Mel Brooks' classic Blazing Saddles. It's true that MacFarlane's effort to poke fun at the west isn't as top notch as the racial satire, but it never really tries to be. The film is certainly on par in style with the films of Brooks or even Zucker, Abrams and Zucker's work on Airplane!, but it never aspires to have the same poignant social commentary that Blazing Saddles contains within its comedy. But that's not a bad thing.
In fact, this kind of comedy would be even more refreshing if it didn't adhere to the strict three act structure that comedies seem to struggle to stick to. Older comedies like Animal House and Stripes have little regard for an actual plot while today's comedies seem to be a slave to a screenplay guide, forcing them to stick to a strict three act structure, checking off all the staples of a basic script as they go along. But as frustrating as this element to the film may be, there's a lot of great humor here and a different kind of satire targeting the west and Hollywood's depiction of it without spoofing the genre in the way that Brooks has before.
Once you get over the fact that this isn't Blazing Saddles, the film is thoroughly enjoyable and hilarious, and some of the criticism going around baffles me. The use of MacFarlane as a contemporary mouthpiece with 20/20 hindsight about the terrible territories is unique and bold for a film that doesn't aim to be a straight-up spoof. If anything, this angle adds even more hilarity to the proceedings. It's almost as if MacFarlane's character knows he's in a movie, and that's perfectly fine, even if some of the more contrived parts of the story would indicate otherwise as he's forced to become the hero he initially thinks he is not.
For some reason, there's a lot of criticism that MacFarlane is completely unlikable in this film, followed by commentary about how he's self-centered and an egomaniac, especially since he cast Charlize Theron and Amanda Seyfried as his girlfriends. This is a criticism I've never understood whenever it's used against other leading men like Seth Rogen or even Adam Sandler (despite the fact that his films are actually terrible). It's almost as if certain critics are upset that an everyman like MacFarlane has these attractive actresses playing his romantic interests simply because they can't have them. The chemistry between MacFarlane and Theron is outstanding, with the latter able to have just as much fun with the boys as Rose Byrne does in Neighbors.
It's not as if the attraction between their characters is hard to explain, as it's mentioned in the dialogue when Albert points out that as long as two people have a mutual hate for something, they can get along pretty well. Both Albert and Anna absolutely hate life in the west, and that's enough for them to find attraction in each other. MacFarlane totally comes off as an arrogant, dickish Woody Allen or Albert Brooks type, but at least he's genuine, and that's exactly why comedians are appealing to millions of people around the world. MacFarlane is basically a charming asshole with a touch of old school Bill Murray in there.
As far as the comedy goes, I'm honestly baffled as to why people are so proud by claiming they didn't laugh once, or laughed very little throughout this film. There are some incredible cameos, killer one-liners and a scene stealing performance by Neil Patrick Harris that includes a catchy mustache song that hipsters would like if Seth MacFarlane wasn't so mainstream. Some of the writing is downright brilliant as MacFarlane describes Parkinson's disease as "It's just another way that God mysteriously shows that he loves us." The only gag that gets a little tired is that of Albert's friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and his girlfriend Ruth (Sarah Silverman), who doesn't want to have sex until they're married because they're good Christians.
Ample credit should given to MacFarlane and writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild for crafting a film like this that doesn't need cutaway gags that run rampant in "Family Guy" and Ted. Even the pop culture references are few and far between, and the ones that were included work in the context of the film's setting. There are two fantastic jokes that specifically reference other films set in the west, and while one has already been ruined in the trailers and TV spots, the other is an awesome reference that actually serves as a credits scene, and isn't even part of the story itself. In fact, there was part of me that was disappointed when a sequence involving a locomotive didn't callback to the former joke. You'll know what I'm talking about after you see the movie.
In this sense, A Million Ways to Die in the West is the most restrained comedy MacFarlane has made, and I mean that in the best way possible. In fact, as a film, it's far tighter and more polished than Ted, which despite all its affectation and hilarity, is still all over the place when it comes to the script. While Blazing Saddles used the western to create a comedy mostly centered around racism, MacFarlane only uses that kind of humor a few times throughout, and instead aims to skewer this glorious literary and cinematic vision we all have of the west as this great, beautiful American landscape. The truth is that aside from the picturesque surroundings, the west was anything but pretty.
Yes, A Million Ways to Die in the West is about 15 minutes too long and could use a little more frequent laughter. But when a joke lands, it lands hard with some gigantic laughs. This may not be a future classic like Blazing Saddles, and it's probably not even the best comedy of the year when all is said and done, but it's hardly terrible. Seth MacFarlane works as a charmingly arrogant everyman, and he's crafted an original comedy that takes risks other writers and directors don't in this genre. This kind of comedy doesn't really get made anymore, and it's a damn shame, because A Million Ways to Die in the West packs a refreshing gut punch of big belly laughs that hopefully more people will appreciate in the years to come.
Ethan's Rating: 8 out of 10
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