The Comic Western is a genre that pops up every now and then in Hollywood (and elsewhere, the Italians have made a few) with a varying success rate. We’ve got classics like Blazing Saddles and Cat Ballou and more recent successes like Maverick and Rango. And then we have films like The Wild Wild West and Lightning Jack. And now Seth MacFarlane has made his stab at the genre with A Million Ways to Die in the West.
After a fruitful career in making animated sitcoms for television, MacFarlane turned to film and got to a pretty good start there with Ted. And now he seems to be essentially making his version of Blazing Saddles, a sort of meta-western that makes fun of the clichés of the genre and takes a look at the era through modern eyes. It’s a very anachronistic and even somewhat “revisionist” kind of western comedy.
The story is simple enough and just a new variation on an age old story. Our hero, Albert Stark (played by MacFarlane himself), is a loser and a coward whose girlfriend just dumped him and basically has nothing to live for, in his opinion. But then a stranger comes into town in the form of a beautiful woman (Charlize Theron) who teaches him a thing or two about life, manliness and being a hero and he eventually becomes a real man with her help.
Like before, MacFarlane pushes the boundaries and is unafraid to offend or go over the limits. There are gags here that could be called homophobic, racist, sexist and what have you, but then again they might also be comments or criticism on these subjects. Sometimes they clearly are, but sometimes it’s just really hard to tell. And therein lies the problem. Whatever MacFarlane is trying to do here is just not so easy to tell.
Is MacFarlane trying to say something about modern society through the prism of the western or is he just goofing off and having a bit of fun with an era he’s fascinated by? Maybe it’s both and maybe it’s neither (or maybe he just needed an excuse to make out with Charlize Theron). A Million Ways to Die in the West is basically a hit and miss affair where sometimes MacFarlane doesn’t go far enough and sometimes he goes just a little too far. While MacFarlane can be very funny he also tends to overextend the gags and milk them a little too much. Many scenes in this film could easily have finished a cut or two (sometimes much more) earlier and he often adds capers to perfectly fine gags that deflate the comic momentum (like when one characters shits in a hat and then we’re showed a gratuitous and unnecessary shot of said shit in the hat). Occasionally it feels like he just doesn’t trust the audience’s intelligence and practically explains the gags (and one point he literally does that but that might be a comment on how stupid audiences are, again not easy to tell).
Another problem here is that MacFarlane doesn’t mix the humor and the drama together well enough. There are entire scenes here played strictly for drama and with all the surrounding silliness it’s hard to take them very seriously. There’s nothing wrong with adding a little plotting and characterization to a film like this but it has be done in the right way. We can’t have entire scenes without a single gag in a movie like this, it just slows it down. Fast pacing and a steady stream of gags is what usually makes a film like this work. This is another example of how unclear it is what MacFarlane seems to be doing with this movie.
AMWTDITW still manages to be watchable throughout and it certainly has its moments. This can largely attributed to a very game supporting cast. While MacFarlane can be likeable he just a little too smug and self-aware and not much of an actor, at least not when he has to emote with his face. But the rest of cast are all pros who know what they’re doing. Theron has already proved in Arrested Development that she has a flair for comedy, and while she mostly plays it straight here she gets into the right groove and gets the right tone. She knows how to deliver a throwaway line like “your dick’s hanging out” while casually grabbing a whiskey bottle.
Liam Neeson actually might be the most noteworthy cast member here, though he doesn’t really get much to do and plays it straight, simply because it’s clear that Neeson is very much at home in this world of the wild west and if westerns were more of a thing he might make a fine career out of doing just westerns, he’s got a certain ruggedness that’s necessary to portray a truly bad-ass cowboy. The best performer here though is clearly Neil Patrick Harris. While he’s basically just playing a variation of Barney Stinson and doesn’t really get that great lines, he does wonders with what he has and just the way he reads his lines and moves around is often hilarious (he even gets to sing a catchy song about mustaches!). The man seems to be made out of nothing but funny bones.
Basically, it seems like MacFarlane needed to get a little crazier for this film to really work. Strange that this actually is a step backwards from Blazing Saddles in regards to outlandishness and “meta-ness” , a movie made 40 years ago. Maybe MacFarlane should have added a talking bear to the mix, and ended it with everyone fighting and eventually storming the sets of other movies. One of the best scenes in the movie is when our hero hallucinates on some Native American drugs and it shows that MacFarlane is at his best when he’s at his nuttiest. Why he didn’t make the rest of the movie much nuttier is a mystery.
The Good: The able cast, especially Neil Patrick Harris who will hopefully have a fruitful career in film as HIMYM has ended its run.
The Bad: MacFarlane’s tendency to milk his gags a little too far and how he can’t seem to get enough of pee-pee and poo-poo gags.
The Ugly: Nothing really (except for the poop), but this movie needed more ugly people. Everyone’s too good looking in it! Didn’t most people in the wild west have bad teeth and such?
Final verdict: 5.7/10