There’s nothing worse than a comedy that just doesn’t work; one broken on a fundamental level, where nearly every gag falls flat and attempts at generating laughter come cringe-worthy.
I remember that feeling with “So I Married An Axe Murderer,” when a young, pre-Austin-Powers Mike Myers delivered jokes and yelled “hello!” like he had just spoken the funniest line in the history of film. It had the opposite effect and drew attention to just how bad the gag failed. Audible groans permeated the theater. They say dying is easy, comedy is hard. Watching a comedy die onscreen may be even harder.
“A Million Ways to Die in the West” came with much anticipation based on the pedigree of writer, director and star Seth MacFarlane. He’s been successfully cranking out comedy for the past 15 years with an endless stream of animated programs (“Family Guy,”“American Dad”). His first feature film, “Ted,” was a riotous piece of cinema, successfully translating his frat-boy style comedy to the big screen. Admittedly, I’m a fan of MacFarlane’s particular brand of whimsy. Maybe that’s why I was so disappointed with “A Million Ways to Die in the West.” It’s not a good movie, nor is it a complete disaster. It is, however, proof positive that MacFarlane’s comedy machine may be running on fumes.
The basic concept behind the film is a great gag. The American frontier is a nightmare of near-death experiences. It’s a world engineered to destroy any hapless soul that has made their way out to the West; coyotes, outlaws, flash photography. Anything and everything will try to kill you with reckless abandon.
For Albert (MacFarlane), a nerdy sheepherder, the frontier is a daily dance with death that has lost its appeal. The only thing keeping him going is his beautiful girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried). Unfortunately, she’s come to the realization that Albert is a poor nobody who can’t even afford a decent moustache. After she breaks up with him, he begins to wonder if there’s anything left for him in the small town of Old Stump.
Just as Albert’s life hits rock bottom, he meets an enchanting, foul-mouthed gunslinging lady named Anna (Charlize Theron). She takes an interest in Albert out of pity. He’s a walking wreck of a man and desperately in need of some confidence. After confronting Louise’s new boyfriend Foy (the excellent Neil Patrick Harris), Albert challenges him to a duel, turning things into a life-and-death situation. Anna decides to help teach Albert how to shoot, which is no easy task. As they train together, their friendship begins to evolve into something romantic. This all would be fine and well except for the fact that Anna is married to the territory’s most maniacal outlaw, Clinch (Liam Neeson).
I give credit to MacFarlane for making an earnest movie that actually tries to tell a story. It’s not just a series of interconnected gags, but an attempt to make a movie with a coherent narrative and developed characters. Sadly, the movie’s core concept is so woefully thin it feels like the whole crew is beating a dead horse 5 minutes into the plot. This is an interesting setup for a sketch or 22-minute episode of one of MacFarlane’s many animated offerings; however, as a two-hour movie, it’s an occasionally painful slog.
So much of the film is reliant on applying modern logic to frontier times, which is only funny for the first 15 minutes or so. By the halfway mark, I was begging for them to find another joke. When people like MacFarlane become wildly successful, there’s less criticism and pushback on ideas. Consequently, no one told him this was a poor foundation to build an entire feature upon.
There are some funny moments in the movie: It’s a riot to watch Charlize Theron curse like a sailor. Neil Patrick Harris delights as the moustache-twirling villain. Everyone in the cast brings a lot of energy to the film, with the only major misstep being MacFarlane himself. He’s just not the kind of guy who can carry an entire movie. It reminded me of my “After Earth” review last year. The movie would work if they cast someone else in the lead role—someone with charisma, someone likable. It’s like those painful Quentin Tarantino cameos except we have to endure it for the entire running time.
“A Million Ways to Die in the West” is a movie with admirable goals but very glaring and obvious errors in construction.
A Million ways to Die in the West
Starring Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Liam Neeson, and Neil Patrick Harris
Directed by Seth MacFarlane