A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014) / Comedy-Western

MPAA Rated: R for strong crude and sexual content, language throughout, some violence and drug material
Running Time: 116 min.

Cast: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Giovanni Ribisi, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman, Liam Neeson, Evan Jones, Christopher Hagen, Wes Studi
Cameo: Bill Maher, Alex Borstein, Ralph Garman, Christopher Lloyd, Gilbert Gottfried, Ewan McGregor, John Michael Higgins, Jamie Foxx, Ryan Reynolds, Dennis Haskins, Jimmy Hart
Director: Seth MacFarlane
Screenplay: Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin,
Wellesley Wild
Review published May 31, 2014

Set in the fictional town of Old Stump, Arizona in 1882, Seth MacFarlane (Ted, "Family Guy") stars as Albert Stark, a skittish sheep farmer who has been recently dumped by his beloved girlfriend Louise (Seyfried, Epic), who quickly hooks up with a smarmy moustachery owner named Foy (Harris, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2).  Meanwhile, at the same time, a murderous gunslinger named Clinch (Neeson, Non-Stop) is coming to town to rob the place blind, sending in his wife Anna (Thereon, Prometheus) and his right-hand-man Lewis (Jones, Gangster Squad) to scope out the town first to see what's the what.  What isn't in the plans is that Anna would quickly befriend Albert, and determines to  help him win back his lady love by posing as his new girlfriend, and teaching him how to shoot a gun, which will come in handy now that Foy has challenged him to a duel for the hand of Louise.  Meanwhile, Clinch will be coming to town and is not likely going to take kindly to someone trying to woo away his lady.

The Western genre and all of its clichés have been spoofed hundreds of times in a variety of formats, which means that this comedy is already in an uphill battle in finding new wrinkles from which to draw out laughsMacFarlane's wrinkle seems to be that Westerns haven't been satirized with an endless array of dick and fart jokes (the once-ribald Blazing Saddles seems subtle by comparison), so why not set a contemporary 'P&P' comedy (penises and poop) in another era and see what laughs can be drawn out?  

A Million Ways to Die
is wrapped in a not-really-funny premise concocted by MacFarlane that came from his own realization that if one of us living today were to exist in the times of the Old West, we'd probably freak out constantly from dangers there are all around us.  In an early scene, Albert reels off sundry things that can kill you in the West, then later comes up with quite a few new observations, as people end up dying at something as wholesome as the town's fair just getting their photograph taken.  It's a bit of a dead end for comedy, since we already assume that when we watch a Western that the place will be fraught with danger.  "People die at the fair," is the oft-repeated punch line, but when it isn't funny enough to snicker at the first time, repetition of that joke certainly isn't going to make it catch hold.

When the film works well is when MacFarlane eschews the repetitive gags and just concentrates on trying to tell the story underneath -- of Albert and his quest to find courage.  MacFarlane's interplay with Theron is where the film's energy arrives.  Most spoofs contain characters who aren't aware that they are acting funny, so when Anna continuously laughs at Albert's jokes, it feels refreshing and in keeping with this story about how she actually might find such a loser quite charming once she gets to know him.  Plus, when MacFarlane actually has an entire scene play out without a reference to a bodily emission, it's like a breath of fresh air, which is what the interplay with the mostly graceful Theron provides.

The film's level of crassness is a double-edged sword, as it does keep the laughs coming for those who enjoy MacFarlane's brand of perpetually juvenile humor,  but also seems to try to push the envelope for a laugh just because it pushes it.  In one instance, MacFarlane is challenged to a match at the town fair's shooting gallery in which the theme of the targets are "runaway slaves".  The racial humor feels out of place given that the film isn't about racism, as Blazing Saddles had been, and the gag itself isn't funny unless you just will laugh at anything that qualifies as an "Oh no, he didn't!" moment.  To be fair, MacFarlane tempers the racist gag in a call-back for the film's final scene featuring a big star cameo ostensibly returning in a famous role.  Note: that scene continues after the credits with a line lifted straight out of Blazing Saddles.

Perhaps the most prevalent knock against A Million Ways to Die in the West is that it feels too long for a comedy that has this thin a plot.  It certainly does give that creaky feel one gets when watching a DVD or Blu-Ray extended edition that puts back some deleted scenes, as there are a sizable number of jokes that are explored that fizzle (several very unfunny, CG-infused minutes are explored in which Albert is tripping off of a hallucinogenic drug that recycles nearly every gag of the movie), and side characters that don't contribute a great deal (probably 20 minutes of the film revolve around Albert's friend Edward (Ribisi, Avatar) and his inability to get sex from his prostitute fiancée Ruth (Silverman, Wreck-It Ralph), despite her occupation.  It's mildly funny to introduce, but wears thin quickly as a prolonged story thread).  A Million Ways to Die in the West also feels very front-heavy in its ability to draw out laughter, perhaps because it can play fast and loose with the gags when it doesn't get tied down by its main plot, and also because the repetitive jokes are fresher in the beginning than in the constant call-backs as the film progresses.

MacFarlane fans who like his shtick for pushing the envelope of tasteless humor and pervasive pop culture references will likely enjoy this more than those who are coming in cold and seeking a proper Western spoof.  It may not be as funny or clever as MacFarlane seems to think it is, but it scores up just enough belly laughs to garner a reserved recommendation for fans of his patented brand of raunch-o-riffic humor.

Qwipster's rating:

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