A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST
Director: Seth MacFarlane
Cast: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Neil Patrick Harris, Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman, Liam Neeson, Evan Jones, Wes Studi
MPAA Rating: (for strong crude and sexual content, language throughout, some violence and drug material)
Running Time: 1:56
Release Date: 5/30/14
Review by Mark Dujsik | May 29, 2014
I laughed frequently—and heartily—during the first act of A Million Ways to Die in the West. From its opening credits featuring panoramas of Monument Valley and typeface that remind us of so many Westerns, we come into the movie expecting a riff on the genre. Screenwriters Seth MacFarlane (who also stars in and directed the movie), Alec Sulkin, and Wellesley Wild, though, have a slightly different goal in mind in the movie's setup. The movie's opening act doesn't so much dissect the genre as it takes apart what the genre represents: a romanticizing of an era.
The movie's opening narration reminds us that it was not a pleasant time (1882) and place (Arizona), with disease, starvation, and violence claiming many victims. Only the toughest of constitution could survive, and our hero is not that sort of folk. Albert (MacFarlane) is a man the narrator describes as a word that sounds a little like "fussy" and only needs the first letter of that word changed to get at it. The beginning of his story finds Albert in a situation that could quickly lead to one of those million ways to die (If one is looking for accuracy in the title, the movie comes up about 999,980 ways short of its promised goal). He's squaring off against a man who's upset that Albert's sheep have been grazing his grass.
They meet, as we would assume, in the middle of the main street in town, facing each other with pistols holstered at the hip. The man is willing and waiting to draw, but Albert wants to talk, like the fussy man he is.
The smart element of this character is that he is a man out of time and place—another helpful description offered by the narration (provided by Rex Linn, whose voice is exactly the kind we'd anticipate to talk about the Old West). Albert isn't a participant in his own story so much as he is an observer to life on the frontier—one who happens to possess an almost otherworldly knowledge of how terrible it is. There are plenty of anachronisms in the movie's humor, but the most consistent is Albert himself, whose acknowledgement of how awful things are also suggests that he's aware it will get much better in the future. There will still be injuries, but at least the doctor won't treat them by having a bird peck at the wound.
This is an actual joke in the movie (stated once and shown another time), which regularly engages in a brand of absurdity that combines the ridiculous and the grotesque at various levels. The bird pecking at a head wound is more preposterous than disgusting, but there's also the scene where workers are transporting a huge block of ice into town that flips the equation. Let's just say that there's a really good reason for Albert to be shocked to learn that people in town will still be using the ice to cool off their drinks.
The movie milks its formula of nudging the period for all it is worth in the first act (There's a running joke about the lack of smiling subjects in photographs, and the racism of the time is acknowledged with a shooting gallery with targets that are despicable racial caricatures—acknowledged but not addressed in any worthwhile way until a cameo that concludes the movie). The plot, which comes together in pieces, involves Albert trying to get over a breakup with his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried), who quickly starts dating Foy (Neil Patrick Harris, who, with much amusement, says every line like he's twisting his moustache), the proprietor of the town's moustache shop. It also introduces a romance between Albert's friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and his prostitute girlfriend Ruth (Sarah Silverman), who wants to wait to have sex with Edward until the two are married but will do anything with a paying client.
These are or lead to some funny bits, but the first sign of trouble with the movie's consistency arrives with Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson) and his gang of outlaws, including his wife Anna (a very charming Charlize Theron). The scene has Clinch robbing and killing an old prospector, and there isn't a single joke to be had in the scene. As the story moves forward with Anna—in town while Clinch robs a stagecoach—teaching Albert to shoot in order to beat Foy at a duel, the jokes become scarcer as the screenwriters abandon almost any effort at humor when matters of the plot are concerned and less effective as the movie's own comic formula runs its course.
The movie's humor becomes more desperate as it proceeds, from a song about moustaches (and a reprise of it by sheep, brought on by a drug-induced hallucination during an ultimately pointless stay with a Native American tribe) to a character loosening the contents of his bowels into a hat (His attempt to obtain a second hat from a bystander who knows better is admittedly funny). A Million Ways to Die in the West has a clever and sometimes hilarious setup, but it has no idea how to follow through on it.
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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