Simply put, we've come to expect more from Seth MacFarlane. In A Million Ways to Die in the West (opening today), the creator of shows like Family Guy, American Dad! and The Cleveland Show, whose first feature-film directorial debut, Ted, was a huge success, serves up an often funny but horribly uneven take on the Western genre. It's a rare misfire for one of the hottest comedic voices in Hollywood. And that's a shame.
In his first starring on-camera role, MacFarlane plays Albert, a sheep farmer living in the Western frontier, circa the late 1880s. It's basically modern-day MacFarlane dropped into a Western, as he still talks, thinks and acts like he does in 2014. He's a loser and a coward for all intents and purposes, still living with his parents and unable to control his flock. His girlfriend, Anna (Amanda Seyfried) dumps Albert after he chickens out of a duel, cleverly talking his way out of the jam. She instead falls for Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), a prissy businessman who runs a successful "Mustachery" in their small town.
On the horizon, Clinch (Liam Neeson) - the fastest gun-slinging villain in the West - and his gang are on their way into town, but Clinch sends his wife Anna (Charlize Theron) in a few days ahead of him. When she rolls into town, she bonds with Albert, purposely keeping secret that truth about her scumbag husband. You can imagine that ole' Clinch won't be too happy once he discovers that his wife has been galavanting around town with some scrawny sheep farmer.
As Albert - MacFarlane - constantly points out, life was tough back in the day (hence the film's title). Much of the film's humor comes from the lack of proper medicine - and qualified doctors - back in the day, as well as poking fun at several genre cliches along the way. Men die by having ice fall on them, getting shot, being overran by wild bulls, killed in bar fights or killed by the doctor's themselves. Think of this film as an elongated episode of Family Guy, a satire of the West and the Western, where the ridiculous and the obvious often tend to clash.
And for every joke that MacFarlane lands, there's a million others that fall flat. The pacing and consistency of the humor is the film's biggest problem. We have become accustomed to rapid-fire comedy from MacFarlane, with Family Guy and Ted. There are sporadic laugh-out-loud moments, but shoe-horned between them are bits of plot and melodrama. MacFarlane seems unsure whether to make this a straight send-up, or to make this a real movie, complete with a romance and characterization. The resulting mash-up of slapstick and drama end up lessening the impact of both.
MacFarlane has never shied away from "politically incorrect" humor and this film is no exception. This is a hard R-rated film, with the comedic envelope being pushed as far as one could imagine it can be. In the film's first five minutes, there are jokes about retardation and Parkinson's Disease. Later at the town fair, they play a shooting gallery game called "Runaway Slave" where Jim Crow-like images act as targets. Elsewhere, a village prostitute (Sarah Silverman) has semen wiped off of her face by her caring husband (Giovanni Ribisi).
I've never been offended by MacFarlane's audacity, but his hankering for cheap laughs in this film is quite disappointing. There are more than a few dick, fart and poop jokes. Because, you know, there's nothing funnier than actually seeing dicks and poop, not just referencing them.
And one last critique: MacFarlane himself may be a genius writer and comic voice-over talent, but his acting chops leave a lot to be desired. His flat performance takes away from a film that is in desperate need of any mojo it can muster.
Somewhere in this near-two-hour mess is a clever idea. But A Million Ways to Die in the West is simply a film that should have been funnier.
Genre: Comedy, Western
Run Time: 1 hour 56 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Amanda Seyfried, Giovanni Ribisi, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman
Co-Written & Directed by Seth MacFarlane (Ted)
Opens locally on Friday, May 30, 2014 (check for show times).
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How to read Tom Santilli's "Star Ratings:"
- 5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie
- 4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws
- 3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired
- 2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities
- 1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time