By Will Ashton
If there is one thing that Seth MacFarlane lacks, it’s consistency.
I guess I should back up…. if there is one thing that Seth MacFarlane lacks comically, it’s consistency. Over the years, the man has established that he is a funny, smart, even charismatic guy. While these are typically all of display inside his work, this doesn’t help the fact that his comedy is basically the definition of hit-and-miss.
These words have never felt truer than in his sophomore directorial effort, A Million Ways to Die in the West.
A modern day comedy centered in the old West that is supposed to be in the same vein as Blazing Saddles, this film focuses on Albert (MacFarlane), a modest sheepherder who, after being dumped by his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) for a much more confident mustache salesman Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), learns to gain a sense of self from a mysterious new townswoman named Anna (Charlize Theron).
Throughout the film, there is a clear appreciation established by MacFarlane of the Western genre. From the movie’s opening credits sequence—which is very lovingly in the same style that one would see in these type of movies several decades ago—it is evident that this is more than just a gimmick for the filmmaker. This is something that he seems passionate about, and makes the movie all the more disappointing when it seems to decide that it is going to slum it.
Much like Your Highness, A Million Ways to Die in the West seems just too proud of itself for putting modern language and references into its old-time setting. Due to its lack of content and its general contingency of slapstick comedy and half thought-out jokes, there is a general laziness throughout the film that seems rather characteristic to the type of comedy that MacFarlane would be known for in his sitcoms these days.
What made Ted, MacFarlane’s directorial debut, feel rewarding was just how surprisingly funny it ended up being outside of what audience members grew to expect from him. The movie found a way to seem more in line with the first three or so seasons of Family Guy and became not only inspired, but also genuinely heartfelt and sincere. It was with this in mind that I went into his next film genuinely hoping for the best…. only to walk out of it shrugging my shoulders at most.
Unlike some comedies these days, this movie is definitely watchable. While there are ultimately more misses than hits here, there are jokes here that do work. In fact, some of the film’s most effective jokes are established around gags that seem as though they are going to be among the film’s lowest moments. As such, these jokes that do work are constantly what make the movie standable, yet are almost what makes the movie more disheartening.
Perhaps even more so at times than some of his recent comedic efforts, A Million Way to Die in the West is a decidedly lowbrow film. If done right, there is nothing particularly wrong with this, but the modest expectations of the filmmaker and cast here makes everything appear sluggish.
What is most strange about the movie is how fast it goes between being inspired and uninspired. MacFarlane, along with his other screenwriters Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, seem to always be at odds with trying to figure out just what they should do with their comedic potential. They don’t seem to be sure whether they should just make a modern day comedy set in the west, or they should truly explore their setting. As such, they produce something in-between that never truly earns its full comedic range and instead just seems to coast by on the charm of its cast.
Which, truthfully, does not go very far. This marks MacFarlane’s first true performance as an actor, particularly a lead actor. As such, his performance, like everyone else, is serviceable, but never truly enough to elevate or deflate the material at hand. Everyone in this movie—including truly talented people like Theron and Liam Neeson, who plays the movie’s villain—seem to do just what they need to pass on through this movie and move on to the next scene.
Especially Harris, who, more than anyone else, seems the most wasted in a supporting performance that really doesn’t give him the credit that he has definitively earned in his career.
As mentioned above, part of what Ted work is its balance of heart in addition to its hit-and-miss comedy. In comparison, A Million Ways to Die in the West is more in line with what one should expect from MacFarlane’s filmography: cold, half-assed and unfocused.
In some ways, MacFarlane has proved here that he has, indeed, developed as a filmmaker. His style is more confident, and his visual style is keener, as there are some surprisingly beautiful shots here captured by MacFarlane and his DP Michael Barrett with their old-West backdrop. It’s just a shame that everything else had to fall to the waist side here.