In the spirit of Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, Seth MacFarlane has opted to make a comedic western satire as his sophomore outing. Also, he has decided to make it his first real acting role, as he has previously only provided major voice work in Family Guy and Ted. I liked Ted a lot, and I think Family Guy used to be great and is still kind of funny, but with A Million Ways to Die in the West, MacFarlane may have finally bit off more than he can chew.
Taking place in the Wild West, this constantly humorous but never gut-bustingly funny comedy tells the story of a lonely sheep farmer (played by Seth MacFarlane) who meets a new girl in town (a magnificent Charlize Theron) and develops a relationship that has certain consequences when it reaches the most feared of all bandits (Liam Neeson). It’s generic enough. Nothing absolutely mind blowing in terms of storytelling, but no one expects that from MacFarlane. What one expects going into this kind of movie is satirical humor that offends about every culture and race in the book. You expect lots of sex jokes. You expect lots of profanity. And you get that. Some of it is really funny. Unfortunately though, for every few laughs, MacFarlane throws in an unfunny joke, or one that seems to never stop being used in generic comedies (a character putting a laxative in another’s drink, for instance). It was funny in Dumb and Dumber. Not any more. But when the used up and tired gags aren’t being enforced, the movie is funny. I found myself laughing consistently in this movie, but it was a bit of a shame after the effect Ted had on me that I didn’t laugh nearly as hard as I did in that film.
The performances aren’t really that bad, though. Seth MacFarlane is a likable guy, even though I really had no reason to care about his character at all in the movie. Sometimes I felt for him, and wanted the best for him, but not really that much, because there was no back story or reasoning given. But for a first time role, MacFarlane was fine and enjoyable. Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman have some funny interplay, and Amanda Seyfried is practically wasted in this movie, which may just be the point of MacFarlane casting her. He’s clever like that. But the three best performances in A Million Ways to Die in the West come from Liam Neeson, Charlize Theron, and Neil Patrick Harris. Neeson plays an intimidating outlaw and nails virtually every scene he’s in, which isn’t very many, but still. Patrick Harris is the funniest character is the film, saturating every scene he’s in with a requirement of uninhibited laughs. But it’s Theron who steals the show, delivering a very good performance of different depths. That’s the main cast, and there are a few cameos that are absolutely brilliant. Don’t leave when “THE END” comes on the screen, because after that there is a cameo scene that is the epitome of MacFarlane’s genius. Unfortunately, the best cameo of the film was spoiled in the trailer. Why trailers find it necessary to spoil awesome moments like that is beyond me, but if I hadn’t known of that cameo going it, it would have blew my mind.
Seth MacFarlane wrote this film with Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild and it is the crux of the situation. If the writing isn’t good, then a comedy flops. And that is unfortunately the case here. Sure, the movie is funny. If you’re going to see this movie to get a few laughs that are mildly offensive, you’re going to get that. But as a comedy, it’s really not that funny. It’s a shame. MacFarlane really is a smart guy, and some of the gags and cultural attacks in this movie are funny, but they aren’t new. Just about every funny line can probably be heard in a Family Guy episode. It’s not that MacFarlane doesn’t know what he’s doing with this western satire. He just did it his way and failed. The story being bland wouldn’t matter if the jokes were funny enough to make up for it, but they just aren’t.
If you go into A Million Ways to Die in the West only expecting a few laughs to get you through your day, you’ll get that. But as a comedy goes, it’s just not that good. Seth MacFarlane uses his offensively aimed humor to target different races and cultures just as Family Guy made famous, but here it just feels tired and dull. Some gags are funny, some are older than the book. MacFarlane aims high with this Blazing Saddles-like western. He knows what he wants to make. Unfortunately, it just isn’t that good. If you haven’t seen Neighbors yet, opt out of this one and see that. It’s much, much better… and funnier.