Seth MacFarlane has become a giant when it comes to television, and when he made Ted in 2012, it was surprisingly well received and became a box office smash becoming the highest grossing original R-rated comedy of all time. A sequel is even being planned for a 2015 release. There was a level of sincerity and heart in Ted amongst the juvenile antics that made the film work. It wasn’t a perfect film by any means, but Seth MacFarlane brought his A-game and made for a solid directorial debut that showed a promising new career away from the small screen and into the big screen. So, for his follow up, we have A Million Ways to Die in the West, which is directed by Seth MacFarlane and written by him, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild.
A Million Ways to Die in the West follows a cowardly sheep farmer who hates living on the frontier, Albert Stark (Seth MacFarlane). After getting depressed from being dumped by his girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), to be with Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), he uses the help of a mysterious newcomer, Anna Barnes-Leatherwood (Charlize Theron), to try and get Louise back. Little does he know that Anna is secretly the wife of legendary outlaw, Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson).
I know that analyzing and dissecting comedy kind of ruins the whole fun of it all. It would be like watching a magic show knowing all the secrets behind the tricks. However, for a bad comedy, it helps us understand why it doesn’t work (and yes, I’m aware comedy is subjective; we all enjoy different things). I’m speaking for no one but myself when I’m describing why A Million Ways to Die in the West just doesn’t work and is not very good.
If you thought the episodic nature of Neighbors was a bit bothersome, then stay far away from A Million Ways to Die in the West. The biggest problem with the film lies within its structure. Each scene in the film feels so disconnected from the previous scene, and as a result, the narrative has no flow. There are two types of scenes in the film. The first one is the sketch-like, comedic scene and the second one is the story progression scene. The film does such a poor job at integrating the humor naturally within the narrative that every time it’s time for a gag, the film comes to a grinding halt in order to let the joke happen. This is the first time in a long time where the humor in a comedy feels like an obligation that comes out of nowhere. It also doesn’t help that the comedy in the film feels so lazy and poorly thought out. In fact, a lot of my issues with the humor are the same problems I had with the humor that made me stop watching Family Guy during its return from cancellation, the period from 2005 onward. There seems to be a need to constantly build up a scenario to a weak payoff and then follow it by explaining the joke, as if the audience is too dumb to understand it. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of anti-humor, but I like it in small doses, same with random humor. However, I don’t think these types of humor works when it’s the go-to type of joke. Crazy and out-of-nowhere type of humor only works when it really is out-of-nowhere. If all the jokes rely on being random, then it loses the surprise factor really fast. The way the scenes are constructed also works in the detriment of the film as well. At times, it feels like scene after scene characters come in, something stupid happens, Albert remarks on how much the west sucks, end of scene, characters come in, something stupid happens, Albert remarks on how much the west sucks, end of scene, characters come in, something stupid happens, Albert remarks on how much the west sucks. It’s uninspired, lazy and frankly unfunny.
The story progressing scenes on the other hand are a bore and a complete chore to sit through. Oddly enough, there’s a surprising lack of jokes during these scenes and they’re played straight, comparatively speaking, but the characters aren’t interesting enough to follow during these scenes. So, when it’s not bad comedy plaguing the screen, it’s these long stretches of boring, predictable nonsense led by Albert who mostly comes off as annoying and very whiny. It’s also bizarre in how different these scenes are in tone from the comedic scenes. The film will occasionally have a scene full of gross-out or sexual humor followed immediately by a scene that is meant to be serious or intense, and I don’t think Seth MacFarlane is not a strong enough director to make it work, so these scenes just fall flat.
Another huge problem with the film is a result of these bloated and disconnected scenes, and that is the pacing. The film is just under two hours, but it feels like three. If you were to cut out 30-40 minutes (which you could easily do, just edit out Clinch Leatherwood, have Anna be a retired or hiding outlaw, cut out a few jokes and end at the duel with Foy), then the film wouldn’t move at a snail’s pace. Other issues I had were minor in comparison. The passage of time is poorly displayed. There were two moments where a week has passed, but I didn’t realize until a character pointed it out. There’s also some continuity errors and questionable effects that I noticed as well.
There are some good elements to the film. The performances were very good, even if the material given was not. For example, Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman are wasted with one-joke characters; Amanda Seyfried is given nothing to work with at all, and is given no funny lines that I can recall (has Seth MacFarlane ever seen Mean Girls?). Liam Neeson, though good as the villain, plays his role straight and in such a way that he could easily play the character the same way in a normal western film, so he just feels out of place, which is a shame because he gave a fantastic comedic performance in The Lego Movie not too long ago. Even Charlize Theron isn’t given much in terms of jokes, but she still delivers a solid performance. Seth MacFarlane is a strong leading actor, but his character just didn’t work for me. In terms of technical aspects, Joel McNeely’s score is very good, providing a pulsating and unabashedly old school western soundscape that gave the film some much needed energy and enthusiasm. Michael Barrett’s cinematography took great advantage of the locations used, occasionally providing some wonderfully shot scenes (though it’s a personal opinion of mine that no western has any business being shot digitally). There are a lot of fun cameos, with some gone in the blink of an eye, so keep an eye out for that. Unfortunately, that is where my compliments end.
A Million Ways to Die in the West is a huge misfire, not just as a follow up to Ted, but in terms of Seth MacFarlane’s career as a whole. It’s a shame because I admire the man’s talent, I’m even one of the few who thought he was a great Oscar host, but when he delivers bad material, it’s really, really, really bad, and this film is really, really, really bad. The film’s narrative is completely broken, and only the biggest of re-edits could make it even remotely passable. However, many of the issues I had with the story structure or characters, I could forgive if the film was at least consistently funny, but it’s not. I laughed once in the film, just once. It wasn’t even at a clever joke or anything, I was laughing because there was a cameo from someone I really liked, that’s it. If you can’t make a decent film with a solid story with interesting characters to fall back on, then you need to be confident in your material, but Seth MacFarlane failed on both counts, for me at least. Unless you’re the biggest Seth MacFarlane fan and you love everything he touches, maybe you’ll enjoy the film, otherwise I can’t recommend it. Also, who puts Neil Patrick Harris in a musical number, but not have him sing anything? What?!
Side Note: Now, switching gears a bit. Here’s something that Seth MacFarlane is involved with that’s actually great. He serves as an executive producer for the TV documentary series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, in which he played a huge role in getting the show funded and on the air. It is an outstanding series, and Neil deGrasse Tyson is an incredible host who makes all the weird and complex theories, concepts and phenomena interesting and fun to learn about. Even if you have a minimal or passing interest in science, I still highly recommend it. The 13th, and final, episode is going to air on June 8th. The whole series will also become available on DVD and Blu-Ray on June 10th.