“A Million Ways to Die in the West” Movie Review
A Million Ways to Die in the West is Seth MacFarlane‘s next step in feature-length films after the moderate success of Ted. MacFarlane is most widely known for his work as the principle mind behind Family Guy, and though he does primarily voice-acting, A Million Ways marks his first attempt at being the lead actor in a movie he’s also writing and directing, which is no easy feat for anybody. Here’s a look at the Red Band trailer:
It’s one of those trailers that gives almost the entire plot away and plenty of the film’s best moments, but not all of them!
MacFarlane plays Albert Stark, a sheepish sheepfarmer living in 1882 Arizona, the pinnacle of the “Wild West”. Oddly enough, Albert and his closest friends Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and Ruth (Sarah Silverman) speak in typical MacFarlane fashion like they walked right out of 2014. Almost all of the extras and other smaller roles riddled throughout are exaggerated Western stereotypes. The drawls. The bad teeth. The grime. It’s a weird collision of contemporary vernacular with classic Western style that comes off as hilariously satirical. What it amounts to is that 30% of the people talk like sewer-mouthed people from the 21st century, another 30% speak in stereotypical Western drawl, and yet another 30% of people oscillate between the two. The remaining 10%? They’re sheep.
The movie opens with Albert getting dumped by his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried). Their trite conversation is so typical of today’s world and so out of place in the West, that it actually translates in a really funny way. She talks about how they’ve grown apart and how she needs to focus on herself. He’s justifiably confused without realizing that his lack of motivation was sort of their biggest problem all along. It gets even better when he gets typical reassurances and platitudes from his friend Edward, ultimately just shrugging it off with, “Let’s just get fucked up.” The satire is at once overly accurate to the viewers and hilariously out of place in the setting.
In Albert’s moment of sadness, he meets newcomer to the town, Anna (Charlize Theron) who is actually married to badass outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson). The two spark a budding friendship while Clinch is on the run. Before long, despite taking time to “focus on herself” Louise begins dating the wealthy mustache salesman (yes, you read that right: Mustache Salesman) Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). Egos clash and Albert challenges Foy to a duel in a week’s time. While Anna trains Albert to properly use a gun, their genuine friendship develops into some serious chemistry and the two fall in love. It’s peculiar in a way, to see that kind of relationship unfold in a medium where love-at-first-sight or enemies turned lovers make up about 95% of romances in movies. And at times, it almost felt like that episode of Between Two Ferns when Charlize Theron pretends to be into Zach Galifianikis. Yes, she’s acting, but it feels like she has to overact at times.
Albert has to deal with not only Foy, but the inevitable return of Clinch, who is obviously real mad that Albert’s been messing around with his wife. Neil Patrick Harris is a scene-stealer next to Seyfried’s boring and overly simple Louise, often channeling Barney Stinson for some very obvious How I Met Your Mother references. MacFarlane must be a big fan of HIMYM. I wonder what he thought of the finale? Liam Neeson as the menacing villain is ice-cold and hilariously over-serious in the way that only Neeson can do (side bar: take a look at this incredibly funny bit with Ricky Gervais where Liam Neeson plays himself trying to dabble in improv comedy). MacFarlane is “okay” in the lead role, but he’s at his best when he’s voicing characters from behind the scenes rather than carrying the whole thing on his shoulders, which is a big reason why I’d call Ted much better than this.
At times it is easy to forget the obvious: this is a move called A Million Ways to Die in the West for a reason. A major focal point of the movie amidst the B-rate plot is the showcasing of numerous ways for people to die in the West. There’s the wildlife, a whole slew of technological issues, not to mention a terrible doctor that uses birds to peck out bad blood. In fact, MacFarlane seems hell bent on making this the only point of the movie. A lot of screen time is spent delving in these scenes that feel like skits aimed at making fun of how primitive the Wild West was, especially the joke about how nobody ever smiles in pictures. This joke, like so many other in the movie, is rip-roaringly funny the first time it hits, but by the fifth time we are reminded of how funny it is, the movie itself begins to lose its steam.
The movie ultimately feels like a smattering of punch lines poking fun at the Wild West (some of them overused), with most of those jokes narrowing in on all the ways people can be killed. Camera equipment catches fire. Bar fights. Mine shaft fumes. Gunfire. A terrible doctor. Etc. The whole thing is held loosely together by a plot that’s just barely interesting enough to keep the whole boat afloat. You can’t help but think the idea for this movie began with MacFarlane and his friends getting drunk, making fun of old pictures in which rigid, frumpy people never smiled. Somebody mentions the ridiculous gowns, another laughs about how bad medicine was with the birds, snakes, and leeches; you know, all that crazy stuff that killed William Henry Harrison. The proverbial tumbleweed kept rolling until they got themselves a serviceable script and a decent cast and before they could sober up: the movie was made.
But you know what? It really, really works.
Though it feels disjointed and a bit wonky at times, the overall experience of seeing A Million Ways to Die in the West is a pleasurable one. It’s outrageous and irreverent in a comical way, and if you like MacFarlane’s sense of humor than you will no doubt enjoy it here in full force. The set and costume design are nicely done and epitomize that Western charm. And be on the lookout for two really great cameos, one of which is probably the best I’ve ever seen in a movie. Second perhaps only to this one.