I’ve never been particularly fond of Seth MacFarlane’s brand of comedy, but while his many TV shows are easy to ignore, his entrance into cinema in 2012, Ted, proved to be a huge success. Not only was it generally well received (though I didn’t care for it), it grossed over $500 million on a $50 million budget, I’m sure Universal was very keen to greenlight whatever MacFarlane wished to do next.
At a glance, his follow up A Million Ways to Die in the West reeks of vanity project, with MacFarlane basically being given free rein to do whatever he wants. He again writes and directs but also now makes a bid to become a movie star, placing himself as the hero of the film, and casts Charlize Theron as his love interest.
The film’s period setting does at least give MacFarlane a chance to avoid his usual reliance on eighties-era pop culture gags though, which he mostly tries to do. He takes on the role of Albert Stark, a sheep farmer who’s just been dumped by his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) for cowering out of a duel. He’s very much the ‘modern man in the past’ type, often making references to diseases and such that no-one else knows about, and talking about the old West as a time and place in history.
There is a lot of potential humour to be mined from subverting western troupes, but MacFarlane usually just goes for the most obvious targets. He also packs the film with crude, juvenile toilet humour, with jokes about farts and a few other bodily functions abound. There are also wearisome running gags, like a filthy-mouthed prostitute (Sarah Silverman) who won’t have sex with her boyfriend because she saving herself for marriage, that are dragged out across the film despite not being very funny to begin with, and a couple of lengthy drug-taking sequences that are similarly indulgent and groan-worthy. It’s not all being childish with naughty words though, but MacFarlane’s attempts at edgy comedy involve having throwaway gags about child sexual abuse that are more troubling than daring.
A Million Ways to Die in the West is admittedly not completely devoid of laughs though, and most of the best come when it lives up to its title. As MacFarlane’s character unnecessarily spells out to the audience, the old West was a dangerous place to live. There are several unexpected and creative death scenes in the film that I’d be lying if I said didn’t cause a chuckle or two. Albert’s romantic rival, played by Neil Patrick Harris, is also fairly amusing; playing a ‘moustache shop’ owner, through MacFarlane wears the joke out with a tiresome musical number. Likewise Liam Neeson escapes with his dignity more-or-less intact after a couple of scenes as the awfully named outlaw ‘Clinch Leatherwood’ (har har har, geddit?).
As expected with MacFarlane, there are also a number of cameos, some of which are really quite surprising. In general they’re hit-and-miss but there’s one inspired appearance that raised a smile, however it’s immediately followed up with an extended diarrhoea sequence.
If there’s one undoubtedly strong aspect to A Million Ways to Die in the West, it’s the score by Joel McNeely. A composer whose previous credits mostly consist of straight-to-DVD movies, his work here is firmly evocative of classic westerns and wouldn’t sound at all out of place in a fifties/sixties film. This and the town’s production design reveal that there’s at least some genuine love of the genre behind this film.
Seth MacFarlane doesn’t present a strong case for himself as a leading man in his sophomore movie, and his direction his woefully undisciplined. The film’s bloated length (almost 2 hours) is padded out with overdone sequences and repetitious jokes, and for every one decent gag he scores, there are a good dozen failures to drown it out.