Million Ways to Die in the West, A (United States, 2014)

May 31, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Million Ways to Die in the West, A Poster

It would be inaccurate to claim that A Million Ways to Die in the West is devoid of humor. It isn't. However, Seth MacFarlane's hit-and-miss spoof of Westerns has far more "misses" than "hits" and the actor-director-writer (Ted) doesn't seem to realize that less is sometimes more when it comes to comedy. Too many of MacFarlane's jokes, which are initially funny, lose their luster because they go on too long or because the movie plumbs the same well too often. The running length is also an issue. A Million Ways to Die in the West feels like about 80 minutes of material was padded out to 110 minutes.

The comedy standard by which all Western parodies are measured remains Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles. Although age has robbed it of some of its humor, the laugh-aloud moments are intact, including the classic campfire scene. On some level, I'm sure MacFarlane was trying to recreate the chemistry (although not the specifics) of Blazing Saddles, but he doesn't succeed. The comedy is a weird amalgamation of the clever and the gross, with Monty Python-esque moments warring with graphic sex-and-poop material. The film uses over-the-top farce to call out the stupidity of various flavors of racism (blacks, Jews, Muslims) and features a raft of cameos (two of which are brilliant). A lot of the raunchiest material, which features Sarah Silverman as a prostitute who doesn't believe in premarital sex, becomes tiresome after a while.

The screenplay has been constructed to accommodate the humor, which isn't unusual for a comedy. The main character, Albert, is played by MacFarlane, whose mannerisms make him as annoying as a protagonist can be. He's an inept gunslinger who eventually ends up in a gunfight with the deadly outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson). As usual, there's a woman involved. In this case, it's Anna (Charlize Theron), who loves Albert but is married to Clinch. Amanda Seyfried is Albert's big-eyed ex-girlfriend and Neil Patrick Harris is a guy with a nice mustache. (The mustache is so nice it gets its own musical number.)

Aside from the cameos, some of the cleverest elements of A Million Ways to Die in the West relate to technical elements. The photography by Michael Barrett makes full use of the setting, echoing the vistas we have come to expect from Westerns. The musical score by Joel McNeely is a pastiche of almost-familiar tunes from about a half-dozen old movies. At times, they're so close to the originals that you can almost hum along with them. All this is window dressing for a movie that doesn't deserve it, but it's very nice window dressing.

As far as the actors are concerned, Liam Neeson seems to be having fun hamming it up as the villain - a role he rarely gets to play. Charlize Theron is appealing as the love interest/mentor. MacFarlane is too busy being MacFarlane for any kind of character to emerge although, to his credit, he does allow himself to be the butt of a few nasty jokes (such as a scene in which he is urinated on by a sheep). Everyone else is pretty much wasted, although no one who sees this movie is going to forget Neil Patrick Harris (perhaps not for the right reasons).

Comedy is subjective but A Million Ways to Die in the West consistently tries too hard to sell its humor. The funniest movies are usually the ones in which the jokes flow easily and there's a sense of spontaneity about their delivery. In A Million Ways to Die in the West, too many gags are labored, repetitive, or predictable. There are enough high points sprinkled throughout to make the movie of passable value to MacFarlane fans. Others, however, are likely to be unimpressed, offended, or just plain bored.

Million Ways to Die in the West, A (United States, 2014)

Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 2014-05-30
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Violence, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1