A Million Ways To Die In The West is 30 minutes of genuinely funny material poorly and painfully stretched out over 2 hours.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Full disclosure: I don’t hate Seth MacFarlane but nor do I think he’s a comedic genius. I know that it’s the cool thing to despise the man now, and we all know that the Internet is all about that hive mind collectiveness, and he has done some questionable or just plain bad things (most of post-Season 4 Family Guy, helping to foist Dads upon a public that has done nothing to deserve such a thing, the 2013 Academy Awards), but I can’t hate him. He worked on Johnny Bravo, Family Guy was genuinely revelatory back in the day, he has a great singing voice, he’s a super talented voice actor and, most importantly, he helped bring American Dad!, one of the best shows on television for the past decade it’s existed for, to mankind. He’s a fallible human being who has made some gold and made some crap. It happens to the best of us (even The Beatles made Beatles For Sale) and I happen to like the guy.
His first foray into filmmaking, 2012’s Ted, was MacFarlane at his best. Genuinely funny, well-paced, heartfelt and mostly consistent; not every joke landed but enough did at a frequent enough rate to paper over the bum gags. Ads for his new film have strongly played up the Ted connection, even going so far as to have frequent appearances by its title character to fully hammer home the point that “THE GUY WHO MADE TED MADE A NEW MOVIE!” I was rather a bit confused by the move, like, I knew Ted was popular but I didn’t think it was a phenomenon or anything. Turns out I missed the true reason why ads for this one were playing up Ted, they’re trying to coax people into the cinema based on residual good will because A Million Ways To Die In The West is disappointingly underwhelming from start to finish.
Set in 1882 Arizona, MacFarlane plays cowardly sheep-farmer Albert whose girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) has dumped him after he publically embarrasses himself during a gunfight. Thrown into a funk when he spots her dating the supreme dickweed known as Foy (Neil Patrick Harris) and sick of living in a town where death is almost literally around every corner, he resolves to move to San Francisco. Plans change when he saves a woman, Anna (Charlize Theron), during a bar fight, becomes friends with her and, in a moment of impulse, challenges Foy to a gunfight. Oh, and Anna is actually married to a notorious outlaw named Clinch (Liam Neeson) who is a murderer, a wife abuser, is inbound to Albert’s town and is kind of a despicable person with no redeeming qualities and isn’t even entertainingly evil to make up for said fact. One of these things is not like the others.
If Ted and A Million Ways To Die In The West share anything quality-wise, it’s the problem that the jokes dry up when the plot gets involved. Ted had the crazed stalker plot that, thankfully, was mostly kept to the side-lines until the last third. However, that still managed to sneak some jokes and heart by even when it ended up overtaking the film’s final third. A Million Ways… has Clinch. Clinch is much like the stalker from Ted in that he appears near the beginning and then makes himself scarce until he can show up in the last third, but here Clinch is completely unnecessary to the main plot. Albert has basically completed his arc when Clinch shows up and all his appearance succeeds in doing is adding another bump in the road of Anna and Albert’s relationship, giving Albert a more traditional and infinitely weaker arc-capper; and dragging the movie out for another 40 minutes so that it can hit that two hour length that all comedies, apparently by royal decree at this point, feel the need to run for. He feels extraneous to the film and his total despicable human routine isn’t even entertaining to watch, he’s just horrible and creepy which doesn’t fit the tone of the rest of the film.
Why do all comedies nowadays feel the need to run for two hours, whilst we’re close to the subject? Like, what is gained by dragging the runtime into triple digits and dos hours? All that usually ends up occurring is audience fatigue and a whole bunch of very obvious filler, jokes and scenarios that outstay their welcome or just plain aren’t funny to begin with. Very few films are going to be The Wolf Of Wall Street, where the high quality of jokes and the pacing of the film are actually sustained throughout the entire runtime! I mean, how hard is it to hire an actual editor or somebody to just say “no” to yet another over-long improv scene or extended piece of toilet humour? Quality over quantity, people!
Anyways, Clutch isn’t the only time the plot gets in the way of the laughs. A lot, and I mean a surprising amount of a lot, of scenes that depict the bonding of Anna and Albert are written sans jokes. I mean, I’m going to assume that most of them are purposefully sans jokes, because there were a hell of a lot of scenes between them where nothing particularly funny was said or occurred in their general vicinity. So, because of this and most of the Clinch stuff, that’s a fair amount of this supposed comedy that’s not being played for laughs. It’s weird, I honestly don’t know if MacFarlane and his co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild understand how to make jokes out of or cram jokes into plot points. So, again, there are long stretches of this film that don’t have any jokes and we end up with a film that has a man taking a dump into another man’s hat in one ten minute stretch, and in the next ten minute stretch has a scene in which Clinch beats Anna and all but openly threatens to rape her (again, for whatever it’s worth, that latter scene is played dead straight). The tones don’t gel and the film never quite feels right because of it.
The other reason why A Million Ways To Die In The West never feels quite right is because it forgot to bring enough jokes to fill those two hours it runs for. If Ted was more MacFarlane than his co-writers Sulkin and Wild (gags that are rooted in character work, genuine likeable characters, plot events that actually tied into furthering the characters instead of just going, “wouldn’t it be cool if…”), then A Million Ways… is more Sulkin and Wild (the people responsible for Dads, if you were wondering). So we get pop culture references (not parodies) for the sake of pop culture references (say what you want about the Flash Gordon bit in Ted, it was at least rooted in the characters and served a plot-based reason for existing), gags that run for far too long and then run a bit longer for good measure (said aforementioned hat dump scene), gross-out gags that use their grossness as the set-up, delivery and punch-line (“Look! Seth MacFarlane’s face is being peed on by a sheep! That’s hilarious,” said people with questionably low standards in humour), and jokes about ethnic stereotypes (there’s an extended bit involving Native Americans that I still can’t decide as to whether it’s a parody of stereotypical depictions of Native Americans in film or just an offensive stereotypical depiction of Native Americans in film).
There’s little heart, here, little rhyme or reason to the gags and a very tiny amount of actual one-liners or funny exchanges. It’s not just Sulkin and Wild, though, MacFarlane indulges in his worst impulses too. Beating jokes into the ground (there’s a continual joke about how nobody smiles in old photos that officially stops being funny by the third, of at least five, time it’s brought up), constant smug knowing references to the setting and set-up of the film that fail to adequately masquerade as actual jokes, over-long action scenes that lack thrills (only the first of which, a bar brawl, contains anything close to resembling a joke or thrill worthy of its existence) and a musical number, which everyone is subjected to twice even though it wasn’t good or catchy or funny the first time (unless you find the word “moustache” inherently hilarious).
It’s all even more of a shame because there are some actually genuinely funny jokes here. Granted, half of them were shown in the first trailer, but there are still some legitimately funny gags in there. Jokes at Albert’s total ineptitude at his sheep herding job are almost always funny, the sudden deaths are great bits of physical comedy, as is most of Albert’s training montage, the prior mentioned bar fight has a very funny gag for Albert and his friend that almost smooth over the total ineptitude shown in the direction of the fight itself, and a montage of Albert’s crapsack of a life prior to the events of the film pulls a steady stream of legitimate laughs until it brings out a group of dwarves to laugh at. Those aren’t all of the jokes, but they are the majority of the better ones (and you can probably also throw anything that comes out of Neil Patrick Harris’ purposefully-trying-too-hard mouth onto that pile too) and they total about 30 minutes of film. And, yes, that is a problem for a film that runs just shy of two hours. It also doesn’t help that the film is front-loaded with the best gags as hour two involves the return of Clutch and we’ve already touched on how well the film handles plot.
A Million Ways To Die In The West’s main saving grace, in addition to the fact that I actually laughed at it (unlike with, say, Blended), is MacFarlane himself in his first lead role on-camera. He brilliantly nails the ultra-pathetic side of Albert and is fully committed to everything his script tells him to do. He’s got a natural charm that he brings to his work, too, which keeps the character likeable instead of just plain pathetic. It’s all best exemplified relatively early on with a sequence in which Albert flips out and starts ranting about how much he hates living in The West and just how dangerous the place is. Neil Patrick Harris is the film’s other standout performer, although everybody proves themselves to be funny when the script actually lets them tell a joke or be funny, which is more of a rarity than one may think. Sarah Silverman and Giovanni Ribisi are especially wasted as Albert’s friends, a devout Christian prostitute and her boyfriend respectively. The film sets up an actual subplot with them, involving the pair wondering if they’re ready to have sex with one another, and they have a legitimately sweet chemistry together… but the film promptly drops both of them completely for the middle hour and then brings them back for glorified cameos in the last 30 minutes. It’s a total waste of talent, if you hadn’t already guessed.
Sigh. Writing this review is bumming me out. I really wanted this one to be good, folks! I’ve had a lot of disappointments ever since The Raid 2 went and blew all my expectations away. Godzilla, X-Men, Maleficent, even The Wind Rises! I’m supposed to be due a win, by this point. To see a film that fully lived up to its potential or track record. But unfortunately A Million Ways To Die In The West is not that movie. It’s too long, too infrequent in quality laughs and lacking in actual gags anyway. Humour is especially subjective, so you may enjoy it far more than I did, but I found myself checking my watch a lot during that second hour and wishing that everybody involved had tried harder. Because MacFarlane can do better but he and his co-writers indulge in all of their worst vices, here, and a very funny 30 minute sitcom episode or TV special is instead stretched out into a mildly amusing but hugely disappointing two hour film. Simply put, it doesn’t work and that’s a damn shame.