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A Million Ways to Die in the West (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 18, 2023

A Million Ways to Die in the West


Starring Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Neil Patrick Harris, Wes Studi, Amanda Seyfried, Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman, Christopher Hagen, Wes Studi, Matt Clark, Evan Jones, Aaron McPherson, Rex Linn, Brett Rickaby, Alex Borstein, Ralph Garman, John Aylward, Dennis Haskins, Jay Patterson, John Michael Higgins, Julius Sharpe, Gilbert Gottfried, Christopher Lloyd, Ewan McGregor, Ryan Reynolds and Jamie Foxx.

Screenplay by Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild.

Directed by Seth MacFarlane.

Distributed by Universal Pictures.  116 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

“Never Give A Saga An Even Break” is the famous tagline for Blazing Saddles, a movie which A Million Ways To Die in the West would love to be – though it doesn’t even come close.

That catch-phrase, a little cheesy, a little corny, a bit outdated, points out why it is almost impossible to make a good western parody today.  It’s simply this: because the western as a film genre was an anachronism even when Blazing Saddles came out – and that was 40 years ago.

That movie worked – and honestly, it’s not quite as good as you remember it to be – because Mel Brooks realized that the western as a genre was exhausted and pointed out how ridiculous the tenets of the style were against a [then] modern backdrop.  However, at that point in history, there were still people out there who grew up on westerns and would appreciate the swipes he took at the style.

Four decades on, very few people under 50 are nostalgic for the film style.  Pointing out the clichés of the genre will be for naught because very few people bother to be familiar with the clichés.

However, every once in a while Hollywood tries to resuscitate the genre with toothless parodies like The Lone Ranger, Wild Wild West, Cowboys & Aliens and Back to the Future Part III.  Each of those was a critical and box office failure.  And guess what?  A Million Ways to Die in the West will be a huge bomb, too.  And deservedly so.

Add to the general creakiness of the idea the fact that writer/director/star Seth MacFarlane’s work has always skewed younger rather than older, and you can’t help but wonder why the filmmaker – who is best known for animated work on Family Guy and American Dad and even voicing the title bear in TED – would choose this as his coming out party as an actor.

Whatever the reason, it doesn’t work.  It doesn’t help that as an actor, MacFarlane has the disconnected quality of a stand-up comic getting his first sitcom.  You don’t buy him as a character, you never for a second forget this is Seth desperately riffing.  Though, truthfully, with the dialogue MacFarlane wrote himself and his cast, no one could have pulled it off well.

Even its title is lame.  A Million Ways for Seth MacFarlane’s Career to Die in a Western is more like it.

The single joke of his character is that MacFarlane’s sheep farmer is a 21st century man somehow transported to the old west.  MacFarlane’s Albert hates the Old West, and why not, he is the only one in this movie who speaks like he is a millennial.  He is a coward and surly and poor and ready to leave town when his lover (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him, essentially because he is a coward and surly and poor and talks like he’s from the future.

His best friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) is a religious man who is in love with the good natured local whore (Sarah Silverman).  Despite the fact that she regularly makes appointments to have sex with every man in town, she won’t sleep with Edward because they are “Christians.”  In case you didn’t get it the first time, variations of this same joke are redone over and over throughout the running time.

As bad as all this is, the movie is almost redeemed by Charlize Theron and Neil Patrick Harris, who bring much more passion and humor to this lame script than it deserves.  Theron’s character is particularly confounding, it is written in the she falls head over heels for MacFarlane’s goofball loser, but the audience really never gets why.  However, Theron is game and talented and sells it, even if MacFarlane can’t as a screenwriter.

Harris also brings massive good humor to his Snidely Whiplash-type bad guy character, the rich proprietor of a mustache care shop who has stolen Albert’s love.  Harris steals every scene that he plays with his over-matched star/director, and how does MacFarlane thank him?  By making his character shit in a cowboy hat.

Yes, if you find diarrhea and sheep penises funny, you’ll probably enjoy A Million Ways to Die in the West.  My condolences.

Then again, none of the humor seems to really work.  Just one of the many confounding parts of A Million Ways is the fact that in the midst of things, there are several sudden and extremely graphic violent deaths, which MacFarlane appears to think are funny.

Also, each joke is repeated over and over, so if you don’t like it the first time, maybe it’ll tickle you the fourth time.  I mean I get that comedy is repetition, but eventually these repeated punch lines get a desperate Jay Leno air to them, like if they keep saying it over and over the audience will finally laugh politely just so that we all can move on.

Honestly, there were very few places where I could even laugh out of politeness.  That’s a real problem in a comedy.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2014 All rights reserved. Posted: May 30, 2014.

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