Director: Seth MacFarlane
Writers: Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, Wellesley Wild
Stars: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Liam Neeson
Release date: May 30th, 2014
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Running time: 116 minutes
Best part: The energetic performances.
Worst part: The turgid gross-out humour.
The American West is a setting continually romanticised on the big and small screens. From the gritty magnetism of Deadwood to the kooky thrills of Cowboys and Aliens, Hollywood makes gun-toting outlaws, violent bar fights, and the Great Plains seem extraordinary. However, the real story of the Old West is a disgusting and questionable one. Pointing out the obvious, mega-successful entrepreneur Seth MacFarlane’s latest effort, A Million Ways to Die in the West, exhaustively and turgidly overlays the point I just made.
Despite his new feature’s quality, MacFarlane, known for animated TV series’ like Family Guy, American Dad, and The Cleveland Show, is one of pop-culture’s most talented and intriguing figures. Releasing jazz albums and hosting the Oscars ceremony in his spare time, the 30-something celebrity appears to be everywhere at once. Bringing back Cosmos and Star Trek, his likes and dislikes have been plastered across every adult’s frame of mind. Obviously, MacFarlane can create inventive and pacy creations. Here, his ambitious and eye-catching reach drastically exceeds his grasp. The plot, such as it is, proves exactly why Family Guy never relies on plot, character arcs, or thematic relevance. Stuck in the Old West, down-on-his-luck sheepherder Albert Stark (MacFarlane) is forced to talk his way out of a gunfight. Looked down upon by the townspeople, his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) is embarrassed by him. Dumped soon afterward the standoff, Stark throws it in and reveals his hatred of the Great Plains. Meanwhile, somewhere else in the west, vicious outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson) forces his wife Anna (Charlize Theron) to head toward Stark’s hometown.
From there, the narrative relies on the most basic of western and romantic comedy clichés. MacFarlane, following up his first live-action feature Ted, has made yet another conventional and unexciting gross-out comedy. Released after mega-hit Bad Neighbours, it’s hard not to compare the two. Sadly, unlike that farce, AMWTDITW takes its conventional premise and never ventures into unfamiliar or even dangerous territory. At this point, MacFarlane, with this and failed sitcom Dads, is only holding himself back. The movie, stretched to an unwarranted 2-hour length, kicks off each scene with lugubrious set-ups and ends them with banal punch lines. The first third, outlining the somewhat intriguing premise whilst introducing vital tidbits, rests solely on its actors’ immense talents. Throughout the first half-hour, the audience is left to wait patiently for the story to begin. Sadly, the story never rises above tedious revelations and inappropriate jokes. After Anna comes to town, she and Stark hit it off over the course of a week. Admittedly, this plot-line is significantly more interesting than the rest. Louise’s new boyfriend Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), Stark’s friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and his girlfriend Ruth are fitted into useless and unfunny sub-plots. With its set-piece-fuelled structure and satire-free agenda, AMWTDITW gets off to a sluggish start. Unfortunately, the movie never speeds up. Lacking flavour and consistency, the twists and turns are visible from a mile away. Speaking of open plains, crickets and tumbleweeds are the only two things that react to AMWTDITW’s absurd and childish sense of humour. Before you can say “pistols at dawn”, the movie’s dick, poop, weed, and fart jokes ware themselves to the bone. Starting and/or ending certain scenes, these mishandled gags only elongate this already tiresome effort.
“I’m not the hero. I’m the guy in the crowd making fun of the hero’s shirt; that’s who I am.” (Albert (Seth MacFarlane), A Million Ways to Die in the West).
Co-written by MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, and Wellesley Wild, this posse throws only one six-shooter of jokes into this banal effort. Aiming to conquer Mel Brooks’ style, this Blazing Saddles wannabe misses the mark well before its climactic finale. Writing itself off as ‘yet another’ dull gross-out comedy, AMWTDITW never forms a unique and satisfying identity. Pushing its racial and sexual humour to breaking point, Django Unchained’s use of the ‘N-word’ seems subtle and dexterous by comparison. Obviously, MacFarlane is the star of this show. Directing, producing, co-writing, and starring in his sophomore effort, all eyes and ears are aimed at him. Unlike Ben Affleck and George Clooney, MacFarlane cannot handle everything at once. Repeating certain jokes and obtaining almost all of the clever lines, his overwhelming influence casts a miserable shadow over the material. Surprisingly, his filmmaking technique has drastically improved. The cinematography, score, production design, and action sequences come together charmingly. Featuring charismatic performers and star-powered cameos, MacFarlane’s latest effort comes close to becoming one of Ricky Gervais’ failures (The Invention of Lying). Fortunately, his actor-direction delivers several light-hearted moments. Despite their underwhelming roles, MacFarlane and Theron develop a significant rapport. Their romance, breezed through via montages, is solidified by their innate charisma and quick-wittedness. Meanwhile, Neeson lends significantly more energy to everything else he’s done this year than to this screwball farce.
Strolling through its period setting, AMWTDITW lacks charm, subtly, and nuance compared to similar works. MacFarlane is stuck in the ultimate ‘emperor has no clothes’ situation here. With his piercing agenda, blinding hubris, and confronting sense of humour tripping him at every turn, MacFarlane is now shooting blanks when he should be firing on all cylinders. Maybe, he should stick to voiceover work.