Movie review: ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’ is one long joke
Whenever someone says they wish they had lived in the time of Michelangelo or Lincoln or F. Scott and Zelda, they’re not thinking about how rough it would have been just to get through the day without all of our modern creature comforts, from smartphones to 457 channels to soft toilet paper to air conditioning to good shoes.
So it goes with movies about the Old West. With few exceptions, even the grittiest of Westerns don’t spend a whole lot of time dwelling on how miserable life was for just about everyone — including famous gunslingers, hookers with hearts of gold, honky-tonk piano players and regular-guy heroes.
From its title through at least two dozen jokes, running commentary from its writer-director-star and sight gags ranging from disgusting to SERIOUSLY disgusting, “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is basically one long joke about how much it would have sucked to live (and die, at a relatively young age) in the Old West.
As you’d expect from the guy who gave us “Ted,” “Family Guy” and the infamous “We Saw Your Boobs!” number from the Oscars, this is a movie that takes full advantage of CGI and other movie-magic technology to give us a musical number featuring dancing, singing, urinating sheep — and their genitalia in excruciatingly detailed close-up. (I’m not going to say it’s
realistic because I do not know what a sheep’s penis looks like, and I’m just not going to take the Google Image hit on this for you, dear reader.)
With a score that sounds like it could have been lifted from a hundred Westerns from the middle of last century, some actually gorgeous shots of endless blue skies and rocky terrain, and one of those classic Old West towns set in the middle of nowhere, “A Million Ways to Die ...” has a genuine Western-movie feel — and a plot we’ve seen a hundred times before as well.
Seth MacFarlane, who’s likable enough onscreen, but doesn’t have a real movie-star presence, stars as Albert, a mild-mannered sheep farmer who keeps commenting on how much it sucks to live in the Old West. (Although with his sparkling white teeth and perfect black hair, MacFarlane/Albert looks like he just returned from a spa day.) Amanda Seyfried is Albert’s girlfriend, Louise, who dumps Albert for Neil Patrick Harris’ Foy, a mustache-twirling villain who literally has the kind of mustache you’d like to twirl, and revels in taunting Albert by pointing out he can give Louise “a luxurious home, warm blankets and WRAPPED candies. Can you give her WRAPPED candies?” (I love Neil Patrick Harris, and he’s funny enough here, but this is just good NPH, not brilliant “Harold & Kumar” NPH.)
Liam Neeson is the
evil gunslinger Clinch Leatherwood, and Charlize Theron is his beautiful and sweet wife, Anna. (When Anna finally reveals WHY she’s married to a psychopath, the explanation is sick. And brilliant.)
With a supporting cast that also includes Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman and a number of terrific talents making cameos, it’s too bad MacFarlane gave himself SO many monologues and scenes where he’s front and center. If Matt Damon’s playing that character, OK. Seth MacFarlane riffing while great big movie stars and comedic actors with decades of onscreen experience stand around? Not the best choice.
Of course, it’s not as if MacFarlane is a stranger to comedic timing. He delivers a couple of priceless reaction shots. And whether Albert is lamenting the ways of Old West medicine (which aren’t that far from the realities of the time), marveling at the ingredients in a “magic elixir” (cocaine and red flannel are just two of the ingredients), or listing some of the many, many ways life can get cut short in the West, the laughs are usually there. The dialogue is actually stronger than the stuff designed to make us groan out loud and look away from the screen before we cackle. Yes, that pile of steaming horse-bleep (and that pile of steaming human-bleep) looks oh so realistic. It’s just more gag-inducing than inspired gag.
As for one of the most inspired bits in the movie: It’s a shame they revealed it in TV ads that played over and over during sporting events over the Memorial Day weekend. By the time the joke rolled around in the movie, it was like hearing a hit song again.
Some of the players in “A Million Ways to Die ...” are used to this kind of material. For Neeson and Theron, they’re saying lines they probably never imagined they’d say in a movie (or, for that matter, in real life), but they both hit the slop running. Theron is especially good at sinking into the bawdy humor while creating the most likable and (somewhat) believable character in the film.
This isn’t “Blazing Saddles.” Nothing is “Blazing Saddles.” For one thing, Mel Brooks got there first, decades ago. Also, Brooks never took his foot off the absurdist pedal. MacFarlane goes as goofy as you’d expect, but there’s a fairly soft and traditional center lurking inside this hard-R candy.
WRAPPED candy. A real treat, reserved for only the most pampered back in the Old West.
‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’ 3 stars
Albert: Seth MacFarlane
Anna: Charlize Theron
Louise: Amanda Seyfried
Clinch: Liam Neeson
Edward: Giovanni Ribisi
Foy: Neal Patrick Harris
Ruth: Sarah Silverman
Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Seth MacFarlane. Written by Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild. Running time: 116 minutes. Rated: R (for strong crude and sexual content, language throughout, some violence and drug material).