A Million Ways to Die in the West Comedy

Quick Draw Film Review: A Million Ways to Die in the West

May 30, 2014Ben MK

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How the West was fun

By Ben Mk

You could say that Seth MacFarlane knows a thing or two about comedy. He ought to, after twelve seasons of Family Guy, ten seasons of American Dad! and his hilariously heartfelt breakout film, Ted. And now he's blazing his own trail into brand new territory — the comedy-western. It's a niche genre that's seen its share of hits — in Blazing Saddles — and misses — like Wagons East! — over the years, but does a Connecticut Yankee have what it takes to make it in the Old West and make us laugh at the same time?

The time and place is the American frontier — Old Stump, Arizona, to be precise — circa 1882, and humble sheep farmer Albert Stark (MacFarlane) is living the American dream. Unfortunately, that implies an existence filled with hardship and suffering, in an arid, unforgiving environment fraught with constant threats to life and limb that come in all shapes and sizes. It takes a special breed of man to thrive out here, and Albert isn't it. Some would say he lacks gumption, while others would just call him a big — well, you get the idea. Suffice to say, his cowardice hasn't won him any favors around these parts.

It has, however, gotten him the proverbial boot from his girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), who feeds him the tired line that she just needs some time to "work on herself". After all, with people living to the ripe old age of 35, a girl can afford not to rush to get married! And so Albert finds himself drowning his sorrows at the town saloon, trying to figure out a way to win her back. His friends, Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and Ruth (Sarah Silverman), aren't much help — they have their own set of problems, with her being steadily employed at the local whorehouse and he being her slow-witted but good-natured boyfriend (and apparently the only man in Old Stump, aside from Albert, who hasn't had relations with her).

Enter Anna (Charlize Theron), a mysterious newcomer full of feminine swagger, who also happens to be uncannily skilled with a pistol. After literally being swept off her feet by Albert, when he pushes her out of harm's way during a raucous barroom brawl, they strike up a fast rapport. Soon she's accompanying him to the county fair and teaching him how to shoot — you know, basic girlfriend stuff, more or less. But — wait for it — there's a catch, and it's that she's already married. Even worse, her husband is none other than the notorious outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), a man so vicious that he makes Louise's new boyfriend, the moustache-twirling Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), look like a harmless puppy dog. And when Clinch gets wind of Anna and Albert's relationship, he'll stop at nothing to put Albert six feet under.

Moviegoers expecting something in line with Ted from this, MacFarlane's second full-length directorial effort (which he also had a hand in writing and producing), may be in for a surprise, though. Because while Ted had its fair share of crass humor, it also had a lovable center that helped give it a broad-spectrum appeal. In contrast, there's a shallowness to the humor of A Million Ways to Die in the West, as its jokes lack any real emotional depth or resonance. Not that there isn't a certain sweetness at the core of the movie, but getting to it requires sifting through layers of lewd and crude, non-PC humor, not unlike a prospector in search of elusive gold.

That being said, MacFarlane is completely within his element here, as the film's overall tone caters perfectly to Family Guy's loyal fan base. And if you're appreciative of his trademark schtick, then you'll find enough nuggets of comedy gold nestled within the film's nearly two-hour runtime to fill Fort Knox. MacFarlane and co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild keep the jokes flying fast and furious — running the gamut from bodily function gags to sexual innuendo — so if any one of them falls shy of its mark, chances are there's another right around the corner that won't. And, of course, there's a flagrant disregard for historical accuracy on display, as well as a spirited (moustache-themed) musical number and a handful of irreverent and crowd-pleasing cameos (and film crossovers) thrown in for good measure.

It's also impossible to fault the film's cast, as every one of them brings their comedy A-game to the table. And with many of them pulled from the ranks of MacFarlane's animated series, there's a feeling of an established synchronicity among the actors, making the interplay between them all the more enjoyable. MacFarlane may not have Mark Wahlberg to play off of this time, but Charlize Theron does just fine. The two have a fun on-screen chemistry together, due in part to his ability to generate laughs with seemingly minimal effort. Likewise, the other principle actors each have their own rhythm going, and all of them are in step with the silly tone of the picture. It's also nice seeing Liam Neeson as the villain for once, in a role that doesn't have him punching, kicking or shooting dozens of terrorists at a time.

The Bottom Line

A Million Ways to Die in the West may not have as big a heart as Ted, but it's definitely laugh-out-loud hilarious, especially if you're a fan of Seth MacFarlane's animated repertoire. In essence, it plays like an extended, live-action episode of Family Guy, replete with fart jokes and off-color humor. Some may call it tasteless, and it's definitely not high-brow entertainment, but approached with the right mindset it can be something just as satisfying — a good old fashioned, fun time at the movies. [★★★½]

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