It’s Arizona in 1882 and in the new Seth MacFarlane western comedy A Million Ways to Die in the West, MacFarlane plays Albert, a sheep farmer who hates living where he does. He fears that at any moment he could be killed, can’t seem to fire a gun and is losing his picky girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfriend) to another man. “People live to be thirty-five these days,” explains Louise. “You don’t have to rush off to get married.”
Albert really doesn’t like the west. “I hate the frontier,” he continues, “I hate everything about it. It’s a disgusting cesspool of despair.”
Then the mysterious and attractive Anna (Charlize Theron) arrives in town and befriends Albert, aiding him through his crisis, helping him face the day. Albert’s life is suddenly looking much better in the west with Anna around, until Anna’s murderous outlaw husband (Liam Neeson) arrives in town with his gang, and he wants to know who it was that was seen kissing his wife.
Maybe it was too much to expect MacFarlane to have made the present-day equivalent of Blazing Saddles, but A Million Ways… doesn’t even come close. Considering how funny and well received MacFarlane’s Ted was it’s surprising that a comedy western that actually looks so good with a cast so great could fall so flat. Plus, knowing that the talented MacFarlane produced, directed, co-wrote and takes the lead, there really is no one else to blame.
There are plenty of gags. In the time it took Mel Brooks to build a joke and deliver a punch-line, MacFarlane has already told three. Like his TV scripts – plus Ted on the big screen before this – MacFarlane’s rapid fire, hit and miss approach is non-stop, and that’s fine if the majority were hits, but in A Million Ways… there are so many gross-out misses you can’t help but feel the sense of disappoint long before the halfway mark. Being this graphic and showing too much instead of letting the mind fill in the blank ruins the moment and the gag, and MacFarlane allows his film to show too much time and time again. The fight in the saloon would be funnier if it wasn’t quite so realistically violent, the falling block of ice – like the Monty Python falling weight – would be a great sight gag if it wasn’t so brutally bloody, and Neil Patrick Harris defecating into not one but two cowboy hats in the middle of the street would have been… well, no, that was never that funny in the first place, but it’s a gross-out joke made even worse by including a shot that literally shows the end result pouring out of one of the hats.
If there’s any saving grace, it’s the film’s overall design. Michael Barrett’s widescreen, colorful cinematography is simply stunning; Monument Valley has never looked so beautiful or spectacular, plus Joe McNeely’s soaring score with that slight, tongue-in-cheek nod to previous themes nicely captures the essence of the epic cinematic western. Even the credit titles have that pronounced letters-ablaze look. You expect to hear the voice of Frankie Laine bursting over the speakers any second.
But MacFarlane’s present-day language with the continual use of the f-bomb as a punch-line in an authentic looking historic setting goes only so far when it’s non-stop as it is here. You can just imagine the formula: If you can’t think of anything clever or creative, gross ‘em out. For every genuine laugh there are ten disgusting sight gags to follow. Heaven knows how that baked-bean-around-the-campfire scene from Blazing Saddles would have looked like under MacFarlane’s direction.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 116 Minutes Overall Rating: 5 (out of 10)