Silver Screen: A Million Ways to Die in the West *1/2
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” goes Tolstoy’s famous opening line for Anna Karenina. Something like the inverse is true for big-screen comedies, however. Good comedies are funny in distinctive ways, but unfunny movies are all unfunny in the same ways. The jokes are flat and predictable, or so nonsensical as to lack essential synaptic connections that make jokes work; the timing of the individual gags is off; the overall pacing is sluggish.
A Million Ways to Die in the West is unfunny in pretty much exactly the same ways that all unfunny movies fail to evoke laughter. What sets it apart from movies that evoke a similar annoyed silence is that it comes from Seth MacFarlane, an undeniably talented guy whose shotgun approach to comedy almost always yields a few big laughs. Even if you’re not a fan of his breakout show Family Guy— and I am not— the show packs so many disparate gags into twenty-two minutes that some of them are bound to hit. Strangely, MacFarlane’s Old West parody has the opposite problem. The movie repeats the same five or six jokes over and over again, pausing for uncomfortably long times between them, presumably while waiting for the waves of nonexistent laughter to subside.
MacFarlane himself stars as Albert, a sheep farmer whose progressive ideas and sensitivity make him poorly suited to the rough-and-tumble existence of life on the 1860s frontier. He lives in the shabby little village of Old Stump, where seemingly everything— the animals, the rowdy townsfolk, the inept doctor— is designed to ensure the locals lead short, unhappy lives. To make matters worse for Albert, his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) leaves him for the smarmy proprietor (Neil Patrick Harris) of a mustache-accessory store.
Albert’s luck seems to take a turn for the better when he has a chance encounter with Anna (Charlize Theron), a beautiful newcomer who is actually the hostage/wife of notorious gunslinger Clinch (Liam Neeson), and the two hit it off. But for their love to blossom, the cowardly Albert will have to learn to shoot a gun and fend off his trigger-happy romantic rival.
It’s a thin plot— so thin it’s almost nonexistent. That problem is exacerbated by how it’s stretched over nearly two hours of running time. The gaps are filled by a protracted, one-note subplot about Albert’s lovestruck best friend (Giovanni Ribisi) trying to consummate his chaste relationship with the town’s busiest prostitute (Sarah Silverman).
The lack of any significant plot is a hindrance, but not necessarily a dealbreaker. A Million Ways to Die in the West is fashioned mostly as a joke-delivery machine. The real trouble is that the machinery is clangy, sputtering, and ineffective. Most of the gags are broad, graceless slapstick and dunderheaded scatology, or shock moments that lack any significant edge. MacFarlane’s signature style is a blend of crassness, crudeness, and cleverness, but it’s that third element that’s lacking in A Million Ways to Die in the West. The end result is a series of lame, off-putting lines like a wet farting sound, followed by an offscreen voice muttering, “That came out of my penis.” The script seems like something a much younger, far less-experienced MacFarlane might have written, rather than the followup to the frequently uproarious and genuinely touching Ted.
MacFarlane does the project no favors by casting himself in the lead. He’s a charming fellow who might have been great in a smaller part, but he cannot carry an entire movie, much less do so in an underwritten, mostly unlikable role. He fares especially poorly when standing next to Charlize Theron, whose movie-star radiance throws his own onscreen persona into sharp relief. That the two would be standing next to one another seems less like a casting choice and more like someone granted MacFarlane’s Make-a-Wish Foundation request.
Theron aside, only Harris comes out unscathed. His elite showmanship wins over sodden scenes that drag down otherwise appealing actors like Seyfried and genuinely funny people like Silverman, while the movie’s other heavy-hitting thespian, Neeson, is more walking plot device than character.
A Million Ways to Die in the West starts slow and never finds another gear. It’s a significant misstep for cowriter, producer, director, and star MacFarlane, whose ego and influence perhaps eclipsed his good sense. He’s already proven he can make a great— or at least an awfully good— big-screen comedy, and likely he will again, relegating this dissonant symphony of flatulence and sustained anachronism to the dimmest recesses of your memory.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.