A Million Ways to Die in the West follows lovable (and sarcastic) sheep farmer Albert Stark (Seth MacFarlane), as he attempts to get his life together after being dumped by his girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried). While Louise suggests she needs time to “work on herself,” it isn’t long before she begins working on well-to-do business man and mustache aficionado, Foy (Neil Patrick Harris) – adding further frustration to Albert’s already negative view of life on the Arizona frontier. Discontent with the rigors of life (as well as risk of death) in the Old West, and without anyone one but his best friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and a set of curmudgeonly parents to keep him in Old Stump, Albert begins plotting a move to San Francisco – until fate intervenes.
After Albert saves newcomer Anna (Charlize Theron) during a bar fight, the mysterious (and tough) young woman takes an interest in her sheep farming rescuer – promising to help Albert win back the heart of Louise if he agrees to stay in Old Stump. However, it isn’t long before Albert begins to forget about Louise, realizing that Anna is his true love – that is until her outlaw husband, Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), suddenly appears in town thirsty for revenge.
Known best for his work creating, writing, and voicing animated series (including The Cleveland Show, Family Guy, and American Dad), Seth MacFarlane has spent a significant amount of time behind the camera – with only minor guest appearances on live-action TV. Two years back, the filmmaker took a bold step into feature film directing with Ted - the critically-acclaimed story of Mark Wahlberg and an unsavory CGI teddy bear. Now, MacFarlane is stepping outside his animated comfort zone once again, with a starring role in his own Western farce, A Million Ways to Die in the West. The result is a somewhat mixed bag: while MacFarlane is fine in the leading role, the larger film doesn’t excel beyond standard raunch comedy bits woven together by a familiar and underdeveloped story of self-empowerment.
In general, A Million Ways to Die in the West is a harmless collection of chuckle-worthy gags that should please the Family Guy crowd, but falls short of capturing the same heart and laugh-out-loud moments that made Ted a hit. Without question, the film borrows heavily from satire greats (especially Mel Brooks), presenting a solid farcical tale told from the perspective of a disillusioned and hyper-aware protagonist. Still, while there are traces of comedy greatness in A Million Ways to Die in the West, MacFarlane lacks the same restraint as his comedy heroes, often taking the low road to laughs with overindulgent raunchy jokes.
The approach might work on Family Guy, but MacFarlane presents the story of Albert and Anna with a bit more sincerity. As a result, in a movie that prominently features erect sheep genitalia and a bowler hat brimming with diarrhea, it’s a rough disconnect when the filmmaker attempts to force tender moments onto cartoonish characters living in a flippant Western world.
Nevertheless, MacFarlane’s self-described “nerd” protagonist is an entertaining focal point - thanks to a subtle juxtaposition of modern day colloquials and sensibilities in a movie that otherwise commits to its 19th century setting. Allowing Albert (and Anna) slightly more awareness than the rest of the cast, the filmmaker successfully reflects on the quirks and absurdities of the time period – without violating the core premise. For that reason, MacFarlane and Theron spend most of their time poking fun at old timey photos, Victorian ball gowns, and racial stereotypes – whereas the rest of the cast is expected to play their caricatures with a straight face.
Liam Neeson phones-in with his best impression of a movie outlaw, but Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman chew up the scenery as loving couple, Edward and Ruth, who are faced with the timeless challenge of balancing career goals and a relationship – made even more complicated by the fact that Ruth is a (very busy) saloon prostitute. Amanda Seyfried offers an amusing turn as a shallow 1880s girl speaking in familiar 21st century platitudes, but Neil Patrick Harris steals most of Seyfried’s scenes as an ostentatious (albeit moneymaking) facial hair entrepreneur and overall prick – who also happens to slip in a How I Met Your Mother easter egg.
No doubt, there’s a market for films like A Million Ways to Die in the West and longtime MacFarlane fans (as well as raunch-comedy lovers) should find plenty to enjoy in the Western spoof. A quality cast and a storyline rife with tongue-in-cheek set pieces makes the movie an easy recommendation for viewers who will be satisfied by an undemanding string of Western-inspired antics – elevated by some enjoyable cameos and a few brief moments of biting satire.
That said, for moviegoers that expect a bit more, A Million Ways to Die in the West will be short on laugh-out-loud comedy beats – while also failing to find the “heart” that made similar genre farces like Blazing Saddles timeless comedy classics.
A Million Ways to Die in the West runs 116 minutes and is Rated R for strong crude and sexual content, language throughout, some violence and drug material. Now playing in theaters.
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