It’s easy to pinpoint exactly when Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West stops working. It’s the moment, a few minutes in, when MacFarlane first appears as the hero of his own picture. While proving elsewhere to be a versatile comic force, with his ever-popular Family Guy on TV, the hit and miss but massively popular Ted and a CD of his crooning lounge favorites, MacFarlane doesn’t have what it takes to carry a movie. The man who gave us Baby Stewie is best behind the camera.
The plot is a series of predictable story threads from other, far superior westerns, given a sarcastic twist. MacFarlane might call his film “satirical,” but it’s not smart enough and its targets are too easy. The story: a kind-hearted but inept sheep herder (that would be MacFarlane) loathes living in the bloodthirsty, trigger-happy west and has just been dumped by his girlfriend. He rebounds by falling hard for a headstrong gunslinger (Charlize Theron), unaware that she’s married to a fearsome and very jealous outlaw (Liam Neeson).
MacFarlane has many scenes where he complains to the camera about all the human indignities of the wild west, scenes that come across like a stand-up comic working too hard to hold the room. The part was written for a Woody Allen type and MacFarlane should have sought Allen for the role or hired someone else. Theron is too good for this movie, though it’s refreshing to see her give a sunny, sweet comic turn after playing so many ice queens. Neeson gives one of his few poor performances, never coming across as strongly as needed.
While Ted cleverly mimicked the format of a TV sitcom, this film attempts to copy the style of a grand, old-fashioned western. A few scenes are framed nicely and evoke an affection for the genre but can’t elevate a comedy with so few laughs. Although the audience I saw this with was flush with fans of MacFarlane’s prior work, the theater was awfully quiet for most of the movie.
There’s only one sustained joke here: that living in the days of cowboys was a nightmare, as lives were cut short on a daily, if not hourly, basis. The blend of anachronistic language, text-speak and vulgar language interspersed might have worked better on a Family Guy episode. After an energetic start, the movie runs out of steam. A long scene with MacFarlane wooing Theron brings the movie to a complete stop. It’s one of many scenes where the screenwriters (one of whom was MacFarlane) unwisely assumed audiences would be engaged in the movie’s by-the-numbers plot.
When even Neil Patrick Harris can’t breathe much life into this (unlike his knockout appearances in the similarly raunchy but preferable Harold and Kumar movies), you know something went wrong.
More than once, this approaches the surreal awfulness of Freddy Got Fingered or All About Steve. In addition to the limp musical number, a foot-stomping ode to mustaches (which sounds funnier than it plays), there’s also a dream sequence that aims for Monty Python but plays like bad Cheech & Chong. Fans of Family Guy won’t be more forgiving, as that show offers more wit than anything here. A truly surprising cameo appearance helps a little and is the sole moment that will remind Family Guy fans of MacFarlane’s random film references.
As for comic shock value, the film includes a few jokes that are racist, mean-spirited and culturally insensitive. Too bad none of them are funny or even on hand long enough to count as more than desperate throwaways. John Landis’ Three Amigos! and Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles were the models for this movie; they remain such hilarious, superior works that you’re better off seeing them and skipping this wagon train of desperation altogether.
Score: * star