Million Ways to Die in the West, A

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/29/14 14:17:56

"Fumbling Tumbleweeds or Big League Blew"
1 stars (Sucks)

"A Million Ways to Die in the West" is a film with one basic comedic conceit driving it--the idea of filtering all the old Western cliches through a modern sensibility that allows the characters to goof and comment on all the conventions of the genre. This isn't a bad concept by any means but it is not exactly the most original one either seeing as virtually every American screen comedian of note from the days of silent cinema until the death of the Western in the 1970's--with perhaps the singular exception of Woody Allen, whose presence on a horse would have been too much for even the broadest of spoofs to handle--did at least one film along those lines. Of course, when Bob Hope bumbled through "The Paleface" or Groucho Marx fired off one quip after another in "Go West," they remembered to pack some genuine laughs in their saddlebags along with their spurs, six-shooters and tacks of varying consistencies, which is more than one can say for what star/director co-writer Seth MacFarlane has done here. Thanks to the massive success of his previous film, "Ted," MacFarlane found himself in a position where he could do pretty much whatever he wanted and decided to squander that opportunity on a vulgar, bloated and stridently unfunny bit of Wild West wackiness that not only fails to compare to its most obvious antecedent, Mel Brooks' immortal "Blazing Saddles," but doesn't even manage to live up to the largely forgotten likes of the exceedingly mortal "Rustler's Rhapsody."

Set in the town of Old Stump, Arizona circa 1882, the film stars MacFarlane as Abner Stark, an ordinary sheep farmer who is nevertheless enlightened enough to realize that he absolutely hates everything to do with the Old West, especially the myriad ways in which a person can meet their violent demise on a daily basis ranging from barroom brawls to being bitten by a rattlesnake while sitting in the outhouse. As the film opens, for example, he finds himself trying to talk his way out of a gunfight with a disgruntled neighbor and manages to extricate himself with only a light grazing and the scorn of most of the local population. Among them is his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) and she inevitably takes this moment to dump him on the basis that she needs to take time to look after herself. As it turns out, Louise is getting plenty of help looking from the sleazy Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), the slick and successful owner of the town's local moustachery and the general antithesis to everything that the clean-shaven Abner stands for. (In perhaps the only moment of restraint in the film, the screenplay somehow resists the urge to make any jokes about mustache rides but considering what else in on display, perhaps they thought that such gags would be too dignified and refined to fit in with everything else.)

Things begin to look up for Abner with the arrival of Anna (Charlize Theron), a newcomer to Old Stump who is not only smart, funny and exceedingly easy on the eyes but seems to be on Albert's exact wavelength when it comes to loathing the times they are trapped in. Naturally, Anna and Albert become fast friends and not only does she help to convince him that he may be better off without Louise but when he unwisely challenges Foy to a gunfight in a week's time, it turns out that she is a crack shot who is willing to teach him how to shoot. Anna seems almost too good to be true but it turns out that she is harboring a couple of secrets. It seems that not only is she already but her husband is none other than Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), the most fearsome and nasty gunfighter in the west, and he is heading for Old Stump and might not be inclined to look favorably upon anyone making time with his better half.

While I am not a particularly big fan of "Ted"--or most of the other output of MacFarlane's gross-out empire for that matter--I am willing to concede that it did have its good points. It had a screenplay that offered up a relatively clever basic premise and some very funny jokes, it was vulgar without becoming too gross and it included a couple of cameo appearances from some familiar but highly unexpected faces. (Between that film, "My Blueberry Nights" and the upcoming "They Came Together," Norah Jones is working up one hell of a filmography.) On the other hand, MacFarlane's storytelling skills were extremely slipshod, the tonal shifts from crude slapstick to straightforward sentiment simply didn't work (imagine what might have happened if we were asked to genuinely care on an emotional level if Leslie Nielsen brought Ricardo Montalban to justice or not in "The Naked Gun") and in attempting to replicate the rapid-fire pace of his various TV shows despite it running something like three times as long as one of them, he ran through pretty much all of his good gags in the first half and was running on fumes for the second.

One might have hoped that MacFarlane would make an effort to iron out these problems this time around but not only does "A Million Ways to Die in the West" suffer from the exact same problems as its predecessor, it even manages to stumble in regards to the few areas in which he succeeded the first time around. The screenplay that he co-wrote with Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild is a hideously slapdash contraption that is so haphazard in the way that its scenes have been assembled that it appears to be coming to its natural (and eagerly anticipated) conclusion about 80 minutes in and then proceeds to go for another full half-hour, complete with an extended chase scene and an equally long drug-trip fantasy sequence, without adding anything of significance to the proceedings. The lackadaisical nature of the screenplay is only accentuated by MacFarlane's equally slipshod direction, which never manages to find or establish a decent comedic rhythm and which kills most of the jokes long before they reach their punchlines. (The film clocks in at a ridiculous 116 minutes and to put that into perspective, consider that "The Searchers," one of the best and most complex of all Westerns ever made runs only three minutes longer.) The film also has a bunch of cameo appearances from his pals but of them, one has been ruined by being included in the ads (presumably because it comes closest to replicating the "Family Guy" style in which pop-culture references are considered to be punchlines) while another is funny but will unfortunately remind others of a recent movie that was both a better Western and a better skewering of the genre's cliches.

Unlike "Ted," however, this film doesn't even have the kind of promising comedic premise to sustain it while it tries to establish itself. Hell, the title suggest an amusing approach but aside from a few blackout gags (again, most of which have been blown by the ads), the conceit is abandoned for the usual comedy-western tropes, most of which will presumably go over the heads of a target audience whose knowledge of the genre may well extend to only "Django Unchained," "Unforgiven" and the "True Grit" remake. In a film filled with running gags that go absolutely nowhere, the lamest of the bunch involves the supporting characters played by Giovanni Ribisi, who plays the town nebbish, and Sarah Silverman, who is the town's most in-demand whore. The joke here is that although the two are engaged, she refuses to have sex with him until they are married because they are good Christians. Alas, none of this stuff works because the basic joke is not very funny to begin with and gets less funny every time it is revisited, unless your idea of grand wit is the sight of Ribisi nonchalantly wiping a giant wad of semen from Silverman's cheek to be the height of hilarity. When it finally reaches its climax, so to speak, it is such a let-down that I naturally assumed there would be another scene with a better payoff but no, it was just another of many mishandled moments.

As for the gross-out factor, "A Million Ways to Die in the West" comes up with at least a dozen or so ways to make viewers want to recycle their lunches but once again, he fails to make them funny in the process. Look, I am no prude and enjoy a raunchy punchline, visual or verbal, as much as the next guy but for them to work for me, they have to be either really inspired or really funny. Take the famous campfire scene from "Blazing Saddles." Not the most sophisticated comedic set-piece in that film but it nevertheless works to this day because a.) it is funny without going overboard into the purely scatological and b.) it offered an inventive twist on one of the quirks of a genre--wouldn't a bunch of guys living on a diet of coffee and baked beans suffer from a certain amount of gastrointestinal distress?--and ran with it. Here, there is a similar set-up when Foy suffers from similar digestive problems before a gunfight but instead of merely sticking with the flatulence, we are then treated to the sight of the character filling up not one but two hats with explosive diarrhea and then get a close-up of the contents of one of them as the punch line. The whole thing is ugly and excessive without demonstrating any wit, even of the crude kind, and even those who have a taste for the gross stuff are likely to be appalled by hard-sell ickiness on display here.

And yet, despite all of the gorge-inducing material on display, the most off-putting element is the presence of MacFarlane himself in the lead role. As a voice actor, his dulcet tones can be amusing in small doses but as a flesh-and-blood performer, he is a complete zero. He has no screen presence, no charisma and whenever he finds himself up against an even slightly more seasoned performer--and bear in mind that Amanda Seyfried and Giovanni Ribisi are in the mix here--he just looks and sounds like a helpless, hopeless amateur. And since they know that they are working with a helpless, hopeless amateur, his co-stars can hardly be bothered to bring their A-game either. The only person involved with "A Million Ways to Die in the West" who comes out of it looking good is Charlize Theron as the gun-slinging hottie who unaccountably finds herself drawn to the blandest man in the west. She looks great, of course, but she is also the only person in the film to demonstrate anything remotely resembling comic timing and is therefore the only one who manages to wring the occasional laugh out of the incredibly weak material that she has been given to work with here--she is even saddled with the single most off-putting line in the entire show and she almost manages to pull it off.

Because I have not been that keen on Seth MacFarlane and his brand of humor in the past (though I did sometimes laugh at "Family Guy" in the days before it just became a bunch of 80's references loosely stitched together), I probably did not go into "A Million Ways to Die in the West" with the happiest of hearts but even I was shocked by its absolute dreadfulness. A lot of time, talent and money clearly went into producing this film but the results are so dire that all I could do was just sit there in slack-jawed amazement at the near-total waste on display. Sure, I laughed a couple of times but in almost every case, it was because of some random non-sequitur that would rise up out of the boredom and then just as quickly sink back into the mire. Other than a sense of overwhelming relief that it is was finally over, the only thing I took away from it once it was over was a desire to see Charlize Theron in a real, honest-to-goodness Western in the near-future. If nothing else, whichever one she might hypothetically choose--even a remake of "The Terror of Tiny Town" (which does get an inexplicable shout-out here)--would almost have to be a step up in terms of quality and dignity from this one.

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