Imagine you have a beast with three heads trying to write a film script for a Western. One head wants to go down the classic sentimental adventure route of cowboys and Indians. The second wishes to make a gross-out, sex-laden slapstick spectacle. The final one has hopes of making a lofty social and political satire. A Million Ways to Die in the West is what happens when all three of these wishes get granted in part, overshadowing the already limited humour and all-star cast as the plot vainly struggles to work out exactly what it’s meant to be.
It’s not a terribly difficult story to follow, in its defence. Albert Stark (Seth MacFarlane) is a sheep-farmer and a coward, who is dumped by his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried). When mysterious stranger Anna (Charlize Theron) turns up in town, she attempts to help him win back the girl from moustachioed braggart Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). In the process, Anna and Albert naturally fall in love – a point complicated by the arrival of Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), a ruthless bandit and Anna’s abusive husband. There’s also a pointless subplot about Albert’s best friend, a shoemaker, and how his prostitute girlfriend won’t have sex with him until after they are married – cue guffaws.
If A Million Ways to Die in the West had chosen just one of the three scripts, it could have excelled in that area. As it is, the sentimental adventure portions feel a little too twee coming from the man behind Family Guy. MacFarlane’s Albert is just not real enough to carry the weight of ‘protagonist’ on his shoulders.
In a film where he should be the rounded character in a sea of caricatures, he is little more than a stock nerdy good-guy: softly spoken, with a dry wit and a sense of proportion in a world where everything is trying to kill him (a point he repeats so often that you end up wishing something would).Big names do make the movie quite watchable, and the whole ‘Brian Griffin, Barney Stinson, and that guy from Taken in the Wild West’ novelty is one of the film’s few major plus points. The tussle between low-brow humour and satire, however, spoils it all.
When we first see the shoemaker (Giovanni Ribisi), he is waiting with flowers for his girlfriend (Sarah Silverman) in the saloon as she very loudly finishes off with a client. Later on, it is Patrick Harris’ term to drop the tone via toilet humour. In fairness, this would have all been fine if the film didn’t also try to have some moments of insight.
The remarks about the treatment of Indians, for example, are too obvious to be effective. It never pushes the boundaries in terms of taste or philosophy, leaving us constantly feeling dissatisfied. That, perhaps, is what A Million Ways to Die in the West suffers from most of all. Excluding a few cameos, the script feels sterile. Whereas Family Guy pushed the boundaries of taste and threw in some political argument, the film is unmemorable and uncontroversial. The different parts of the film don’t really connect either, making the shifts between sentimentality, slapstick, and satire awkward to behold.If you want to watch the film because of Seth MacFarlane, I would advise against it. The humour is generally limp, and the satire is far too blunt for a live-action movie.
Although there are great turns by Theron, Neeson, Patrick Harris, and even MacFarlane, it all feels too disjointed to be memorable. A Million Ways to Die in the West may not be the worst film on the block, but with this cast it should have been so much better.
PHOTO/ Gage Skidmore