Review: A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

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Director: Seth MacFarlane
Screenwriter: Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin & Wellesley Wild
Cast: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman, Neil Patrick Harris & Amanda Seyfried
Runtime: 116 min // Certificate: 15


Allow me to begin by regaling you, fine reader, with an anecdote. So there I was, sat in a crammed screening of A Million Ways to Die in the West – Seth MacFarlane’s second foray into narrative cinema, following 2012’s Ted – surrounded by a veritable menagerie of fellow moviegoers, all of whom were hoping to be at least mildly entertained. The film had yet to start but the trailers were well under way, though this didn’t stop a significant portion of this ragtag concoction of misfits from playing with their phones and being rowdy. So, after a brief preview of Into the Storm (which I mistook for a comedy…), a trailer for the movie adaptation of Mrs Brown’s Boys came on. For just under two minutes, the woman two seats across from me all but wet her pants with excitement. She chortled, guffawed and howled her way through this monstrous humour-vacuum, while I sat there trying (but failing, admittedly) to be as broad-minded as I possibly could. A few minutes later, a trailer for a simulcast of Monty Python’s new live show came on, only to be met with utter indifference from almost everyone, not least the philistinic Mrs. Brown’s Boys fanatic next to me, who expressed her distaste for John Cleese et al with a simple “meh”.

It was at that point that I knew for certain that the next two hours were going to be a struggle. The trailers for A Million Ways to Die… – both red and green band – had already failed to raise but a minor titter from me, and I thought Ted was a criminal waste of good celluloid, so I wasn’t expecting much to begin with, but this marks a new low in MacFarlane’s increasingly narrow-minded canon. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike the man; I think some of his earlier work on Family Guy and American Dad! is enjoyable enough, and I thought the hysterical moralising from the media in reaction to his risqué performance at last year’s Oscars was petty and absurd, but this film is just a step too far. It’s not the offensiveness or the laziness that bothers me; oh no, I can live with all of that. The issue here is that the entire debacle is just desperately unfunny.

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Set in the American West in the late 1880s – a fact that MacFarlane seems overly keen to stress at every given moment, just in case the contemporary lingo confuses you somewhat – A Million Ways to Die… tells the story of an inept sheep farmer, Albert (MacFarlane), who becomes depressed when his girlfriend (Seyfried; Mamma Mia!) dumps him for a Moustache-twirling businessman, Foy (Harris; How I Met Your Mother). The arrival in his small town of Anna (Theron; Prometheus) changes his outlook, however, and as she helps him to get over Louise and teaches him how to shoot (in preparation for a duel with Foy), the two become close friends. Anna harbours a secret however. She’s married to Clinch Leatherwood (Neeson; Taken), the most dangerous outlaw in the region, and when he discovers his wife’s friendship with Albert, he seeks violent revenge.

Now, my immediate reaction to the film wasn’t one of anger but of chronic disappointment. The central concept has a lot of comic potential, but thanks to a witless, immature, lowest common denominator script, it goes almost entirely unutilised. Fair enough, I think I laughed six times throughout the film’s near two-hour runtime (that’s about one laugh every twenty minutes; hardly a great ratio…), but at least three of those laughs were the result of surprise cameos, further cementing my view that MacFarlane’s talents are much better suited to the pop-culture references and cutaway gags of Family Guy than they are to any form of self-contained story. Toilet humour is all well and good but it can only get you so far, and in a film that stretches about fifteen minutes of material over a two-hour period, the lame fart jokes and gags about people dying in ridiculous ways grow tiresome well before the first act is over.

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What’s most intolerable about all of this however, is MacFarlane’s unabashed narcissism. As the director, producer, co-writer and leading man, MacFarlane does everything he can to make himself come across as a victim who beats the odds. This is problematic in itself, not least because MacFarlane is a privileged man who is simply playing a version of himself, but the manner in which he stresses his character’s “victim” status is nigh-on infuriating. Albert is upset because he can’t understand why a mean girl would dump him – a lovely, caring young man – for a tosser like Foy. The MRAs will no doubt love it because it’s a film in which women are deceitful and malicious, whilst the men are the ones who suffer. Even the Ribisi-Silverman relationship falls foul to this; why won’t Silverman’s (School of Rock) character have sex with Ribisi (Public Enemies), even though she works as a prostitute? It’s all very self-pitying and whiny. MacFarlane goes on a major ego trip, in which he is always the victim (in spite of the fact that almost all of the gags he makes are mean-spirited and scathing) and in which everyone is out to get him. Don’t like the film? Well that’s because you’re a jackass who won’t give a hard-working man a break! Won’t sleep with MacFarlane? Man, you’re so mean!

Ultimately though, A Million Ways to Die in the West fails because there is an unbridgeable gap where the jokes ought to be. The film is nowhere funny enough to justify its ludicrous runtime, and MacFarlane’s performance is unpalatable in the extreme. He tries to get by on a few comical facial expressions, a downbeat look in his eye and a vocal performance that borders on shrill, yet is also strangely self-aggrandising. The script is as obnoxious and brainless as they come, MacFarlane’s direction is frigid and the talents of both Charlize Theron and Liam Neeson are inexcusably wasted. Sure, if you like MacFarlane’s blunt style (as I sometimes do) then you might get some enjoyment out of this, but for me it lacks all wit, charm or purpose. Even the offensive jokes feel forced, almost as though MacFarlane’s sole aim was to push the boundaries as much as possible, the result being that the entire charade feels somewhat excruciating, and not in an amusing way.

Even if you liked Ted, A Million Ways to Die in the West is best avoided. Then again, I guarantee you now, it’ll still be better than Mrs. Fucking Brown’s Boys…“meh” indeed!