Imagine sitting in a crowded theater anxiously awaiting the film to start. It has become your Friday night and Saturday morning routine, a ritual that hypnotizes your every weekend. You are ten maybe twelve years old and men like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry are your idols. From them you learn about right and wrong and how a man should behave. During the 1930s and 1950s westerns captivated audiences as they watched the cowboy hero chase villains or help the damsel in distress. (1)
The western has changed considerably from the days in which young boys sat in crowded movie theaters or in front of their television screens in the 1950s. In the decades since 1950, the western has expanded from presenting simplistic ideals of right and wrong to serving as an easy and familiar setting in which to represent contemporary conflicts. The western reconstructs contemporary issues in a way modern dramas cannot because it eliminates the complexity of modernity; it presents an easier setting because it epitomizes the myth of the West or American ideals of independence, autonomy, and democracy. (2)
However, today the western is a dying genre. There are only eight American westerns that have either come out in theaters or will come out by the end of 2014. Fifty years ago, American audiences had about seventeen westerns to choose from for their viewing pleasure at movie theaters. Television is even worse as to date there is just “Hell on Wheels” on right now while in 1964 there were at least ten westerns airing simultaneously on the small screen. So in the sense of trying to resurrect a distinctly American genre that is very close to disappearing all together, Seth MacFarlane’s new comedy western “A Million Ways to Die in the West” has that going for it. Oh, and the cheeky title/fantastic cast. Unfortunately, that’s about it.
The main problem with the film is that MacFarlane tries to do too much with it. “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is both a satire and traditional western. Had he decided to choose only one of those directions it could have been a decent film. Instead, it’s a random mix of anachronisms and authenticity that is incredibly frustrating for movie audiences because the acting, characters, and story isn’t half-bad. MacFarlane as himself and not as “Ted” or a character from “Family Guy” is somewhat hit or miss. You either love him or hate him and there is usually not much in between. Fortunately for him, this reviewer likes him well enough and didn’t think he was all that bad at the 2013 Oscars. In the film his character, Albert, a helpless sheep farmer who hates everything about the western frontier, is likeable and has believable chemistry with his female romantic interests, Anna Leatherwood (a surprisingly funny Charlize Theron) and Louise (Amanda Seyfried). His foils, Foy (Neil Patrick Harris) and Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson) are great as well as are Sarah Silverman and Giovanni Ribisi as Albert’s best friends. Harris especially has the best scene in the movie in which he participates in a fun song and dance number to the catchy song “If You Only Got a Mustache”. However, another issue with the movie is that overall, it is just not that funny.
One reason that “A Millions Ways to Die in the West” isn’t funny is that some of the tricks that are common in MacFarlane’s projects don’t translate well to the western. For example, the talking animals are plain weird and the cutaway gags are simply redundant. It’s a shame, a full satire of the western and what it means to Americans could have been a really fun movie to watch. Unfortunately, as is, “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is not worth a trip to the movie theater.
(1) R. Philip Loy, Westerns and American Culture 1930-1955 (Jefferson, North Carolina: Mc Farland and Company Inc., Publishers, 2001),3.
(2) David Hamilton Murdoch, The American West: The Invention of a Myth ( Reno, Nevada: University of Nevada Press, 2001), xi.