In 2012, Ted carried animated impresario and musical enthusiast Seth MacFarlane’s naughty sensibilities to their natural, R-rated, big screen terminus, and raked in nearly $550 million worldwide. (A sequel, naturally, is in the works for next summer.) With the new comedy A Million Ways To Die in the West, multi-hyphenate MacFarlane heartily affixes a bull’s-eye to his back, starring in his second film behind the camera—a scattershot affair that mixes his characteristically crass and off-kilter sense of humor with sentimentality and affable goofiness.
The film unfolds in Old Stump, Arizona, in 1882, where sheep farmer Albert Stark (MacFarlane) chickens out of a gun duel in front of the entire town, sending his longtime girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), into the arms of the self-important Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), who owns a mustache grooming store. Albert’s friends Ruth (Sarah Silverman) and Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), a prostitute and her celibate fiancé, commiserate with him as Albert contemplates trying to either win Louise back or just pack it in and head west to San Francisco.
This coincides with the arrival in town of the mysterious Anna (Charlize Theron), who builds up Albert’s fragile confidence and settles his frazzled nerves when Albert rashly challenges Foy to a duel. What Albert doesn’t know is that Anna is the emotionally estranged wife of notoriously ruthless outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), who naturally does not take kindly to an overseen lip-lock between the pair. Conflict and redemption ensue.
A Million Ways to Die in the West is co-written by MacFarlane and Family Guy colleagues Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, so it’s of little surprise that the movie shares that TV show’s penchant for oddball asides, willful offensiveness, gross-out gags and sometimes woolly pacing. (There’s also a rousing musical number in the form of a town square-dance, set to a tune called “If You’ve Only Got a Moustache.”) At just four minutes shy of two hours, the film could use a bit of a trim, especially in a drawn-out climaxing scene involving explosive diarrhea. (A tipped cap, though, for somehow avoiding any expected outhouse fecality in a hideout and escape sequence.)
The bottom line is that there’s far more here that connects than not, including some good running jokes regarding the novelty of photographs (“Made by lightning and God himself!” reads one advert) and the harsh qualities of frontier life. Even the movie’s healthy roster of cameos (including Bill Maher, Ewan Lloyd and Gilbert Gottfried) doesn’t slow it down, given that they’re deployed in such quick-blink fashion.
To the extent that one remains grumpy during A Million Ways to Die in the West, it would likely be tied up in an emotional investment toward the nerd-made-good smugness of MacFarlane’s public persona, and how much of an assumed cloak one finds that to be. Certainly the movie is finely if not superbly directed; MacFarlane oversees a technical package that abets the film’s loose, playful tone. Composer Joel McNeely’s score is hearty and energetic, like a Beef Industry Council theme song. And Michael Barrett’s cinematography nicely captures the wide-open vistas of the American Southwest, lending the movie the needed scope to root its jokes. There’s even a trippy, well-rendered hallucinogenic sequence.
MacFarlane’s performance undeniably has a very modern shine to it, though, which is a bit out of step with the rest of the cast. A Million Ways to Die in the West isn’t entirely a postmodernist work, but it does at times seem reflected through a prism of the present day, which undercuts some of its amusing commentary about the general hellishness of 19th century life. Another actor in the lead role may have ameliorated this.
Regardless, A Million Ways to Die in the West remains an enjoyable romp. Its baser moments may trigger a few tripwires relating to our own uneasy relationship with juvenilia as we age, but MacFarlane’s film delivers some pointed and unlikely thoughtful moments alongside its scatological jokes, making this version of the Old West seem preferable to the real thing.
Brent Simon is a regular contributor to Screen Daily, Paste, Magill’s Cinema Annual and Playboy, among many other outlets, as well as a member and former three-term president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and on his blog.
Director: Seth MacFarlane
Writers: Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, Wellesley Wild
Starring: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Neil Patrick Harris, Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman, Liam Neeson, Wes Studi
Release Date: May 30, 2014