Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Million Ways to Die in the West Review: The Only Thing Dying Here is Comedy

By Andrew Braid

Directed by Seth MacFarlane
Starring: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Sarah Silverman, Giovanni Ribisi, Liam Neeson, Neil Patrick Harris, Amanda Seyfried
Release Date: May 30, 2014

Before you jump to any wrong conclusions, let me get this out of the way: I like Seth MacFarlane. I honestly do. I grew up loving Family Guy, and American Dad gradually proved over time to be even better. And while it probably won't stand the test of time I also really liked Ted, MacFarlane's debut in the world of feature-length filmmaking. It's also very evident from interviews and pieces with the guy that MacFarlane is also a very smart, business-savvy guy, whose huge success came out of his canny ability to tap into what could broadly appeal to mass audiences while including his own satirical or absurdist sensibilities. 
But it's also become apparent that MacFarlane also has somewhat of an ego, and when that ego decides to make passion projects, they end up being less for the enjoyment of audiences and more for himself because he just kinda felt like doing that this week (for a good example, look no further than the infamously interminable Family Guy Presents: Seth & Alex's Almost Live Comedy Show- yeah, wasn't expecting me to bring that up, were you?*). That's unfortunately what we end up having here with his second feature film, A Million Ways to Die in the West, a homage to westerns that's also a comedy, apparently. You'd be hard-pressed to tell that though, considering how much dead silence was in the theatre when I saw it.

Wow Seth, you really weren't prepared to read the reviews for this, were you? 

Seth MacFarlane (his character's name is Albert, but let's not mince words here- calling him a "character" is being generous) is a smarter-than-thou yet cowardly sheep farmer who gets dumped by his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) for local moustache enthusiast Foy (Neil Patrick Harris, whose talents couldn't possibly be more wasted here unless the movie had the word "Smurfs" in the title). Enter Anna (Charlize Theron), a beautiful gunslinger laying low in Albert's hometown who agrees to teach Albert how to shoot and stand up for himself so he can challenge Foy to pistols at dawn and win back Louise. But feelings begin to form between these new friends, and Albert begins doubting whether Louise is really right for him in the first pl-
...You know what, do you actually care? Because I sure as hell didn't. The film focuses way too much of its bloated 116 minute running time on this stupid, cliched love triangle that the film plays mostly straight and genuinely expects us to get invested in. While Theron gives it her all and even manages to find occasional sparks of chemistry with MacFarlane, it doesn't change how rote and tiresomely predictable the whole thing is. In fact, Theron, like much of the talented supporting cast (including Sarah Silverman, Giovanni Ribisi and Liam Neeson), ends up getting sidelined at many an opportunity for Seth MacFarlane to take centre stage and mug at the camera for laughs that almost never occur. Everyone feels like they were mostly just hired to stand there and watch MacFarlane riff on his soapbox, a soapbox which his other work at least concealed under Macfarlane playing some kind of wacky, self-deprecating or bizarre character (Brian and Stewie on Family Guy, Ted, etc.). Here it never feels like he's playing any kind of actual character, which makes all his incessant mugging that much harder to tolerate. 

Look at this face and honestly tell me you don't want to punch it right now. 

That the film plays so much of itself straight simply doesn't end up fitting with MacFarlane's comedic sensibilities, and in the process the variety of actual humour on display becomes severely limited. Ted succeeded because it mixed genuine heart (and MacFarlane playing a real character) with a variety of absurd gags, cutaways and bizarre pop culture references. Sure they had some gross-out gags and sex jokes too, but they didn't take over the whole movie. By contrast, A Million Ways to Die in the West boils down to about 3 kinds of jokes repeated with slight variations ad nauseum:

Joke #1: "Gee, living in the Old West sure does suck!"
Joke #2: "Gee, the Old West sure was racist/sexist/etc.!"
Joke #3: "Look, piss/poop gags!"

Mix in some cheap sex jokes and the aforementioned crappy love triangle, then tie it in a bow with a surprising level of technical competence and production value (that's completely wasted on a film this tiringly unfunny) and you've basically got the whole movie right there. 
I really don't think there's much else to say here, honestly. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: the only question that's important when talking about a comedy is this: "Is it funny?" And in the case of A Million Ways my answer is a resounding no, regardless of whether you're a Family Guy fan or not.

Pictured: Amanda Seyfried, in a rare moment of genuinely contemplating her life choices.

I feel like I've gotten relatively lucky with movies so far this year. Sure, there's been many movies that are just average (About Last Night, Million Dollar Arm), or mixed bags (the Robocop remake, Maleficent- more on that in a bit), and even ones that are downright mediocre (Rio 2, Divergent). But most of these movies still have some stuff that's interesting or salvageable enough to make them watchable, or at the very least generally tolerable. But A Million Ways to Die in the West has none of these things. It's a failed vanity project through and through from a man we know is capable of better, an uninspired and awkward stab at comedy that only accomplishes wasting 2 hours of your life. It honestly makes me look back a lot more fondly on MacFarlane's Oscar hosting gig a few years back- at least there he told more than 3 kinds of jokes.

"I'll just hide here until Ted 2 comes out..."

Final Score: 3 / 10

+ Well made on a technical level (direction, production design, music, etc.)
+ Two of the cameos are amusing
+ A few laughs do occasionally eke out...

- ...But it's not enough to make up for the dozens of other bits that fall completely flat
- The film plays too much of itself straight, critically lacking in MacFarlane's trademark absurdity
- A great supporting cast is mostly wasted in order to let MacFarlane take centre stage
- MacFarlane simply cannot carry a film entirely on his own
- Trite, predictable love triangle plot
- Needlessly drags on for almost 2 hours

*: Especially considering that I was one of the 12 people that actually watched it