With an impressive career behind many of the most popular night time animated shows, Seth McFarlane puts himself front and center in his latest motion picture effort, A Million Ways To Die In The West.
Synopsis: Seth MacFarlane directs, produces, co-writes and plays the role of the cowardly sheep farmer Albert in “A Million Ways to Die in the West.” After Albert backs out of a gunfight, his fickle girlfriend leaves him for another man. When a mysterious and beautiful woman rides into town, she helps him find his courage and they begin to fall in love. But when her husband, a notorious outlaw, arrives seeking revenge, the farmer must put his newfound courage to the test. – Universal
If you’re already a fan of Family Guy, American Dad, Robot Chicken, or even Dexter’s Laboratory, and of course, the movie Ted, then the synopsis pretty much covers all you need to know about the film. For everyone else, suffice to say, it’s basically a western as retold between 14 year old boys on a sleep over, when no adults are around. If that’s not your cup of tea, stay away. If it is, you’re in for a treat.
With the restraint of prime-time television shackles removed, McFarlane finds himself able to indulge in the furthest extremes of his potty-mouthed, potty-minded sense of humor. Often times, it’s a riot. Sometimes, it lands with a leadened thud.
The biggest disappointment stems from McFarlane’s decision to use a modern voice for most characters in the film. Sarah Silverman sounds like Sarah Silverman. Seth sounds like Seth. (Brian, actually). The voice is meant to alert us to the characters’ disinterested observation of absurdities of the time. Using modern accents just dispels the illusion to highlight points we get it anyway, thank you. In some cases, the jokes still hit, such as the punchline for a running gag about no one ever smiling in photos 100 years ago. McFarlane has apparently started a meme, as you can find sepia toned selfies all over the web now with subjects sans grin.
Another poor decision: given it’s R rating, everyone swears like drunken sailors. Again, immersion might have been the better comedic device. No doubt, the wild west had its own encyclopedia of curse words, so why not fit as many of them in as possible? Defaulting to an F-bomb everywhere a guttural stop is called for or interjecting liberal sh-exclamations becomes a tedious distraction.
Regrettably these devices serve no purpose in elevating the tone or humor, where other choices could have added comic value.
There’s also more than a few underused opportunities. The peyote scene dialogue could have been worked up, rather than being thrown away with the Mila Kunis line. The hiding in the sheep scene could have been extended into a hilarious physical comedy gag, instead of McFarlane just getting peed on. Also, maybe some more evil prairie dog scenes? At least the racist shooting gallery got a great callback at the end of the film. (Stay to the very end!)
Despite the criticisms, there’s still a lot of funny material to make this trip to Santa Fe worth while. McFarlane tries his hand at physical comedy, including a hilarious sequence involving drunken horse riding. Many classic western tropes are reimaged from a modern perspective to great effect, including: smoking peyote (drinking really), learning to shoot, falling for a well-employed (but very Christian) painted lady, an excellent saloon fight with funny running dialogue, and line dancing to a song written especially to taunt the main character. Oh yeah, it also features a couple dozen or so horrific ways people can die in the ol’ wild west. The best examples are where it’s not the event that does them in but the townsfolk reacting in laughably moronic ways.
Giovanni Ribisi, in a small role, and Charlize Theron in a lead elevate the film’s overall charisma, effectively endearing themselves to the audience. McFarlane’s scenes with Theron convey a palpable sense of amiable chemistry, elevating the film’s fun quotient whenever they’re together. But it’s Neil Patrick Harris who deserves the award for best performance. Harris’ stage delivery, steeped in one of the few dastardly chronistic accents, and absurd warbling laugh, imbues a villain delivering some of the funniest lines in the film – as well as one of the most humiliating and expertly executed extended bathroom gags ever featured in an American western.
Matt Clark deserves a shout-out for his performance as the “Old Prospector” who’s robbed early in the film. He’s one of a handful of character actors who inhabit their roles, and he’s brilliant. When Clark is on screen, if you didn’t know this was a comedy, you’d think you’d walked in to an old John Ford film.
While the modern dialogue and incessant swearing detract from the goings-on, a copious amount of classic McFarlane humor, along with sight gags the live-action format allows, ensure A Million Ways To Die In The West will undoubtedly entertain the legion McFarlane fans and anyone else undeterred by it’s stronger blue elements.
Copyright Universal Pictures 2014.
Full Disclosure: It’s actually MacFarlane. Probably made up anyway.