“People die at the fair,” but luckily laughs aren’t totally deceased in Seth MacFarlane’s “A Million Ways to Die in the West.” Although the film has an unfortunate overabundance of fart and juvenile humor, which sells writer/director Seth MacFarlane and ultimately the audience short, to be sure “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is also full of laugh out loud moments.
Directed by MacFarlane and written by MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild (the same team that brought us the hysterical “Ted“), “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is set in 1882 Old Stumps, Arizona. The story…such as it is…is about sweet sheep farmer, Albert (MacFarlane), who, in the opening scene, is dumped by girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), so she “can work on herself.” However, what she really wants to do is immediately take up with the wealthy, pretentious town businessman, Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). Less successful Albert still lives with his parents and his only friends seem to be gentle Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and his girlfriend, Ruth (Sarah Silverman), a much sought-after prostitute who, whoring aside, is still saving herself for marriage (for me that explained the cross she was wearing). Into Albert’s sad, lonely life sashays cowgirl, Anna (Charlize Theron). Unknown to Albert, she is the wife of notorious gunslinger, Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson). Anna takes a shine to Albert’s kindness and when he foolishly challenges Foy to a pistol duel, she gives him both shooting and life lessons. When Clinch learns that more than lessons may be involved in the two’s relationship, he’s none too pleased and promises to take action. Therein lays the basic plot.
MacFarlane is an OK actor and has a gentle demeanor which serves him well. Let’s face it, though; no one is coming to see “A Million Ways to Die in the West” for the acting. They are coming for the jokes and there are plenty of those. But what is so frustrating is just how smart MacFarlane is and how much funnier this movie could have been because of those smarts. The movie’s premise is a really promising one…making affectionate fun of the Wild West we think we know, but writing the film with today’s sensibilities. MacFarlane’s modern-day references to Parkinson’s, political correctness and driving while drunk, just to mention a few, are very clever and extremely funny. And given how everyone today is obsessed with selfies, his running gag about no one smiling for photos in the 1800′s is spot-on and hilarious. But then the immature side of MacFarlane emerges—the endless farting jokes and sexual references. You laugh, but those are cheap laughs, and MacFarlane is just so much more intelligent than to settle for those.
Charlize Theron and Liam Neeson are not names that one normally associates with comedy, but both are very good. Theron and MacFarlane have a fun chemistry and when she walks into the dance hall…yikes! Neeson makes for an amusing villain, but his abusive vibe with Theron seem out-of-place in a comedy. A moustached, dancing Neil Patrick Harris is terrific as the movie’s other villain and, God, help me, his extended “bathroom” action made me cringe and laugh at the same time. Sarah Silverman and Giovanni Ribisi have an ancillary plot and while they are good and work well off one another, their scene is not particularly funny and really adds unnecessary minutes to what is an already long film. Humans are not the only ones in on the outrageous action. Horses, dogs and most especially sheep, have parts that are just as funny as those of their two-legged cast-mates.
“A Million Ways to Die in the West” has a lot of “now you see them, now you don’t” cameos in some unusual roles…say a quick hello and good-bye to Jamie Foxx, Bill Maher, Christopher Lloyd, Gilbert Gottfried, Ewan McGregor and Ryan Reynolds, along with many others.
There is no denying that Seth MacFarlane is a very smart, talented and funny man. I just hope his next film has a lot more of the smart.