Even if you’re not a fan of Seth MacFarlane, you have to acknowledge that the comedic multi-hyphenate has built an empire with his quick-fire, profanity-laced delivery and encyclopedic understanding of pop culture. You’ve got to give him something for the fearlessness, and possibly tonal cluelessness, with which he tackles material. The problem of course is that, armed with that gusto, MacFarlane often belly flops when he’s outside of his comfort zone. He’s printed his own money off the success of satiric, scatological cartoons like “Family Guy” and “American Dad,” and his blockbuster film “Ted” was comprised of such of-the-moment jokes that there’s a gag built around Susan Boyle, but when he, say, tries to host the Oscars, or attempts a live-action show in the same dim bulb style as his animated series (“Dads“), things become downright disastrous. MacFarlane takes his biggest leap yet with this week’s “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” a costly comedic western earned from the goodwill that “Ted” box-office wrought. And it’s as ambitious as it is misguided – a sloppy, unfunny bore that makes Adam Sandler’s “Blended” look like “Some Like It Hot.”
As the title would suggest, “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is mostly concerned with the inhospitable conditions of frontier life. The movie is set in Arizona, 1882, a hostile realm of famine, disease, and danger, where a trip to the doctor could be just as deadly as encountering a pit of rattlesnakes. MacFarlane plays Albert, an inept, anachronistic sheep farmer who is frequently paralyzed by his neurotic understanding of how horrible everything is (even though he’s of this era, he’s written meta-like, commenting back on the era). Most of the time Albert whines to both his nerdy best friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried), until she leaves him for Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), a dandy salesman of fine mustache oils.
Albert’s life changes dramatically when he forms an unlikely friendship with Anna (Charlize Theron), a comely outlaw awaiting her stagecoach-robbing husband (a snarling, scene-stealing Liam Neeson, sadly only appearing in a handful of scenes) in Albert’s Podunk town. After Albert hastily challenges Foy to a gunfight, Anna promises to help him learn how to shoot. (You’ll never guess this, but she learns a little something from him, too. Awwwwww…)
“A Million Ways to Die in the West” doesn’t have a plot as much as it’s got a handful of jokey scenarios that it just keeps hammering home, again and again. One is that the west is a really awful place to live, which means that the movie is punctuated by blasts of explosive, R-rated violence that wouldn’t seem out of place in one of the “Final Destination” movies (a man is gored by a bull! Another’s head is crushed in by a giant block of ice!) There’s another subplot about how Edward is getting married to a prostitute (Sarah Silverman) who refuses to have sex with him until their wedding night (But she’s a prostitute! Get it?). But maybe the most offensive, ego-centric point that MacFarlane fixates on is how great a guy MacFarlane is.
For much of the movie, MacFarlane mugs with about as much subtlety as one of his cartoon characters, and has two of the most gorgeous, smart vivacious women on earth squabbling over his affections. Even if you can suspend your disbelief, it’s absurd and insulting because his character Albert is completely charmless and undesirable. There are at least a half dozen scenes between him and Theron where they’re just laughing at each other’s jokes.
And all of this would have been tolerable if the movie was funny. But it’s not. We can honestly say that not a single chuckle, guffaw, or titter emerged from our mouths during the entire running time. We might as well have been watching a documentary on Holocaust survivors or puppy mills. For all of the movie’s high-concept splendor, you don’t feel like MacFarlane and his co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild ever really engage with the material like they did on “Ted” (a surprisingly affective and funny comedy). The comedic western is a notoriously difficult nut to crack, with only a handful of directors ever pulling it off successfully (Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” which gets explicitly referenced here, are the notable exceptions), and MacFarlane seems both incredibly eager to join those rarified ranks and yet skittish about really maximizing the potential for the movie’s setting and concept. Instead, it’s the same tirade of tired parade of pop culture references (Bill Maher as an old timey stand-up comedian, really?) and fart jokes over and over again. Only this time they’re wearing leather chaps and cowboy hats. The actors try their best, and Theron is as radiant as ever, but it’s not like they’re staged or directed particularly well, so even the liveliest performer comes across as feeling flat and uninteresting.
For a while there seemed to be the implication that the filmmakers were going to address why MacFarlane talks like a 21st century dweeb (Time travel would be the obvious suggestion and perhaps a creative left turn surprise. Farts of future past?). But instead, he’s just an old west dweeb who speaks in a contemporary cadence and references things that won’t be around for a hundred more years. It’s a shame, too, because the movie could have been something special, albeit in a very weird and odd way. MacFarlane seems to have been afforded all of the money in the world – so why couldn’t he have closely approximated, say, the widescreen gorgeousness of Sergio Leone or John Ford? There are a couple of lovely establishing shots of the movie’s picturesque shooting locations, but throw a character or action set piece in there, and it’s as ugly and drab as anything else MacFarlane has conjured up.
From the outset, “A Million Ways To Die In The West” seems to promise a shocking, splashy western spoof in which old timey violence is starkly contrasted with modern concerns and humor. Instead, it’s a lifeless, meandering, overlong (116 minutes!) trudge through the oversized ego of its creator, full of wrong-headed humor and inept filmmaking (the fact that the movie doesn’t have a single point-of-view is the understatement of the century). In a weird way, both in its period setting and misguidedly lavish excessiveness, it’s closer to Michael Cimino’s studio-bankrupting “Heaven’s Gate” than “Blazing Saddles” (except that “Heaven’s Gate” is much, much more watchable). It’s unclear if boredom is one of the million ways you can die in the west, but it nearly took us out while watching this film. You can still stare in awe at the go-for-broke-ness MacFarlane applies to each project, but it doesn’t count for much when it’s an utter failure like this massive misfire. [F]