Family Guy and American Dad! creator, Seth MacFarlane made major waves in 2012 with his first feature film, Ted. An outrageously funny, surprisingly heartfelt and delightfully irreverent story about a man and his foul-mouthed, thoroughly perverted sentient teddy bear, Ted was not only a fantastic comedy amongst critics and general moviegoers, but also surpassed The Hangover as the highest-grossing original R-rated comedy of all time.
That presents awfully big shoes to fill for MacFarlane’s sophomore film offering, A Million Ways to Die in the West. Originating from an inside joke between MacFarlane and his Family Guy writers, this comedy Western essentially aims to unfold like a comedy sketch about what the title states; How much the Wild West was a hostile, unpleasant and thoroughly sucky place, because of how many outrageous ways that folks in that era could die.
While A Million Ways to Die in the West at least attempts to have something of a coherent character arc, and makes the lofty effort of including a superb ensemble cast, there’s no denying that it’s more juvenile and feels less well-crafted than Ted. The movie is still reasonably funny, even if it did give away a lot of its best jokes in the trailers, but it’s best to adjust your expectations here.
Even if it’s definitely not comparable to Ted however, at least fans of MacFarlane’s low-brow humour will enjoy themselves here.
Amongst its large cast of personalities, A Million Ways to Die in the West stars lowly sheep farmer, Albert Stark, played by MacFarlane himself. A coward and a town laughingstock, Albert is shamed when he backs out of a duel, which also leads to him losing his girlfriend, Louise, played by Amanda Seyfried, to the town’s wealthy and snooty moustache vendor, Foy, played by Neil Patrick Harris.
MacFarlane still has some reasonably solid comedic writing to lean on in terms of delivering good material, but he’s definitely comedically neutered in now having to play an aggressively ordinary leading man. In Ted, when MacFarlane was hiding behind an exaggerated and extraordinarily-well realized CG persona, he came off as far funnier, because his real strength as a comedian comes from his ability to add heart and believability to outwardly crude and absurd material.
A Million Ways to Die in the West does try to tap into this talent, but it doesn’t wholly succeed. MacFarlane often feels like he’s playing second fiddle to his supporting cast, though thankfully, he’s not afraid to depend on them either. On this note, while Seyfried isn’t given much to do beyond look pretty and act exasperated, MacFarlane has outstanding comedic chemistry with Neil Patrick Harris, who is a delightfully cartoony and hysterical foil to Stark as Foy. Amongst the crowded cast, Harris is one of the actors who definitely shines best, even when he’s forced to humiliate himself with toilet humour.
Another highlight is Charlize Theron, portraying Stark’s new buddy, Anna, a tough, no-nonsense markswoman who vows to whip Stark into shape to take Louise back from Foy. Theron brings much-needed female gravitas to the movie, and she’s another personality that feels compelling and fun to watch, perfectly balancing inspiration and charm, and helping to pick up the slack for MacFarlane when he can’t always make the most of his own script.
Unbeknownst to Stark however, Anna is actually married to one of the most notorious outlaws in the frontier, Clinch Leatherwood, played by Liam Neeson. Leatherwood ends up depositing Anna with one of his goons in Stark’s town of Old Stump, Arizona, vowing to return for her in just over a week’s time, so they can lay low after one of Clinch’s crimes, making for the other half of what pushes the surprisingly busy plot forward.
Unfortunately, this also means that Neeson is absent for most of the movie. He’s meant to be the main antagonist, but we see very little of him. The only real joke behind his character is that he speaks with a vaguely goofy Irish accent as well. Neeson deserves to be commended for how effectively he gives his all in the part, but it’s a shame that the script just doesn’t give him much to do.
Albert’s devoted Catholic best friend, Edward, played by Giovanni Ribisi, shows up much more frequently, and is purely used as gag fodder. A running joke throughout the movie is that Edward believes he can’t have sex with his girlfriend, Ruth, played by Sarah Silverman, until they’re married. Ironically, Ruth is a saloon prostitute, who comically recounts her outrageously exaggerated sexual misadventures with her clients to Edward, who just seems oblivious to how messed up his relationship situation is. Funny? Occasionally, but it is a pretty one-note joke.
It’s a bit of a disappointment that A Million Ways to Die in the West somewhat squanders its amazing cast. It even packs in a huge heap of cameos, some of which are well-known characters from other movies (you’ll see), but while a couple of them are genuinely funny, some just feel like weak throwaway jokes. Why is *insert actor here* hanging around at the fair for no reason? No idea. Is that the joke? I don’t get it.
As much as I seem like I’m complaining however, don’t get me wrong; A Million Ways to Die in the West’s characters are certainly not unfunny or boring. The movie has a decent share of laughs to go around between its cast. They’re just more lukewarm than gut-busting, especially when some of the actors feel disappointingly under-utilized.
A Million Ways to Die in the West sometimes makes the mistake of trying to recapture the lightning in a bottle that was Ted. It somehow tries to take what’s supposed to be juvenile silliness, and give it a sense of emotional poignancy. It’s at these points when the movie really feels like it stumbles, since that’s not the original spirit with which it was obviously conceived.
When it’s just allowed to let loose and be silly however, the story is much more successful. The character arc of Albert Stark is occasionally decent, but too often it feels laboured. Despite this, when MacFarlane is messing around with his supporting cast and just having a great time, that’s when audiences will smile and laugh most. Like a good Family Guy episode, the social commentary and wisdom can work as a nice bonus, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of the ridiculous humour that audiences came for in the first place.
Essentially, the main strength of A Million Ways to Die in the West is its overarching, sketch-style joke; The dark comedy that comes with how hostile MacFarlane’s borderline cartoonish interpretation of the Wild West is. Not every joke hits home, and if you’ve seen the trailers, you’ve seen many of the highlight jokes already, but nonethless, this is a movie where, even if one gag fails, another is immediately following on its heels.
It’s a bit of a devil-may-care approach where MacFarlane simply sees what kind of ludicrous dark comedy he can get away with in his own script, but like I said, A Million Ways to Die in the West is at its best when it remembers not to take itself too seriously.
MacFarlane himself directs A Million Ways to Die in the West, on top of producing it, co-writing it, and starring in it. This is pretty common at this point, as MacFarlane has taken over almost every end of production since the beginning days of Family Guy, and this was also the case with Ted naturally, even though he was in more of a supporting role there, despite portraying the title character.
Like I said however, despite MacFarlane getting involved from almost every angle of production here, he’s never been one for ego-tripping. MacFarlane knows that he needs the help of talented actors, co-writers and co-producers to fully realize his visions, and you can tell that he’s having a great time with his fellow actors on the set. Even during the weaker gags, there’s a constantly upbeat and cheerful vibe throughout the movie, with actors often cracking genuine smiles and seeming very much into their roles, simply because they’re enjoying themselves so much.
Because A Million Ways to Die in the West is directed with such wholesome and positive spirit, it’s ultimately impossible to truly dislike it. MacFarlane, as usual, isn’t afraid to offend more conservative audiences with his latest, granted, but there’s no denying that he remains a very charming comedian and director, even in his weaker material.
You still have to understand that A Million Ways to Die in the West is directed so as to almost resemble a live-action cartoon, so if your threshold for stupidity isn’t very high, you’ll probably find the whole affair to be too juvenile to hold your interest. If you’re familiar with MacFarlane’s body of work already though, you know not to expect grounded comedy, and A Million Ways to Die in the West maintains the man’s usual commitment to low-brow silliness.
MacFarlane has recruited his American Dad! composer, Joel McNeely to score the soundtrack of A Million Ways to Die in the West, which is full of many of MacFarlane’s wholesome and ironic family-style tunes. Naturally, there’s Western-style strings throughout much of the score as well, which intentionally harkens back to vintage Westerns from the 50’s and 60’s.
A couple of singles have also been contributed to the soundtrack. The first, the movie’s theme song, “A Million Ways to Die”, comes from Alan Jackson, and is an ironic country song about, predictably, how many ways you can die in the frontier. The second is an especially big highlight in the movie itself however, “If You’ve Only Got a Moustache”, sung by Amick Byram. The tune accompanies one of the movie’s best and funniest moments, a square dancing sequence where Foy attempts to humiliate Stark by bribing the musicians into singing a song that rubs in Stark’s inability to grow a moustache, referencing Louise choosing a wealthier, more successful man as a result.
This moment is definitely when the soundtrack reaches its high point, offering a hilarious and catchy Western-style earworm that you’ll be humming long after leaving the theatre. It’s a shame that the tune is so short on the movie’s accompanying soundtrack CD (and so is “A Million Ways to Die” for that matter), but in the movie itself, it’s a real riot, and its sequence is almost worth the price of an admission ticket by itself.
While kept to a minimum, there are a handful of effects-driven comedy moments in A Million Ways to Die in the West. Among the many oft-advertised highlight jokes, is a drug-induced hallucination shared with natives leads to all sorts of surreal hijinx, which cuts out the middle man and fully turns the movie into a ridiculous cartoon for a short while. It’s intentionally played for silliness, but some of the cringingly weird CGI does lend to some solid giggles.
Naturally, there are also some CG gross-out jokes, another MacFarlane staple. These are other jokes that the trailers have liberally given away already, but they’re still a MacFarlane trademark, and they’re still among the movie’s better gags when they do show up.
A Million Ways to Die in the West is definitely not MacFarlane’s best work. If anything, it feels like a tide-over flick so that MacFarlane and the rest of the cast can just have some goofy fun and unwind before moving on to bigger, better projects, namely next year’s Ted 2 in the case of MacFarlane himself.
For all of its flaws and its somewhat limited appeal however, A Million Ways to Die in the West is solid. It’s not amazing, but it’s solid. It’s got enough funny jokes and it’s certainly one of the better comedy Westerns, even if it’s nowhere near the league of, say, Blazing Saddles. If you really enjoy the comedy stylings of Seth MacFarlane, you’ll enjoy his latest offering just the same.
If you’re not an established fan of MacFarlane’s, A Million Ways to Die in the West will have considerably less appeal for you. It’s not impossible to enjoy, but it’s much easier to get laughs out of if you know what you’re getting into, which is a lot of pitch black comedy and irreverent toilet humour.
The surprising emotional depth of Ted may be entirely absent here, but A Million Ways to Die in the West is nonetheless an acceptable and reasonably amusing tide-over flick while we wait for Ted 2, even if the trailers gave away several of the best jokes.
- Awesome cast
- Fun concept
- MacFarlane charm
- Hit-or-miss jokes
- Several actors wasted
- Plot isn't great