"Ow! That came out of my penis! "
In the pantheon of bad decisions, the choice by Fox to give Family Guy a second chance at life in 2004 ranks somewhere between Blues Brothers 2000 and Napoleon invading Russia, and I'll leave it to you to decide where it falls between the two. Seth MacFarlane is funny to a point, and seems to have a genuine love for pop culture, but his attempts to rebottle lightning came off as just that. As his properties become increasingly drenched in flop sweat, he turned his attention to Hollywood and produced the very funny but slight 2012 smash hit Ted (which has a sequel in the works, because no one ever learns).
For his follow-up, he's dusted off the dustiest genre of them all, the Western comedy, which hasn't had much success in the 41 years since the release of Blazing Saddles, yet nevertheless, here we are. Could A Million Ways To Die In The West prevail against insurmountable odds, or would it drown in a sea of bodily waste jokes? Read on to find out (as if you don't already know the answer to that)...
Albert Stark (Seth MacFarlane) is a sheep farmer living in late 19th Century Arizona, a place where death is waiting around every corner at the hands of the eponymous ways. Following an act of cowardice, Albert's girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) breaks up with him and takes up with mustache shop proprietor Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), leaving Albert a mess. Even his friends, the pious shoemaker Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and his prostitute fiancé Ruth (Sarah Silverman) are no help, so Albert decides to head further west to San Francisco. On what is to be his last night in town, Albert meets Anna (Charlize Theron), a new woman in town whom he saves during a bar brawl.
Albert and Anna become fast friends, and Anna agrees to beard, I mean pretend to be Albert's new girlfriend, to make Louise jealous. After a confrontation at the fair, Albert challenges Foy to a duel one week from that day, and Anna agrees to help him learn how to shoot a gun in preparation of their duel. Little does Albert know that Anna's husband is Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), the fastest gun in the west, and that he is headed to town to track down his wayward wife.
A Million Ways To Die In The West suffers from a severe lack of identity. MacFarlane seems to want to make more than just another cheap comedy, so he makes a point of spreading the jokes out to make room for horse chases, sweeping montages, and the like. The problem is that he just can't help himself, and has to constantly insert lower than lowbrow humor into the proceedings whenever he seems to be getting bored. Therefore the movie suffers from not so much peaks and valleys as valleys and chasms. As a result, the film becomes a total waste of time, money, and effort. MacFarlane has always had issues balancing sharp satire with lowest common denominator jokes and randomly inserted incongruous pop culture references, and here he seems to be trying so desperately not to rip off Blazing Saddles that he legitimately doesn't know what else to do.
The film also fails to live up to a title as seemingly open ended as A Million Ways To Die In The West, by presenting perhaps a dozen or so ways to die in the west, but I suppose A Smattering Of Ways To Die In The West just doesn't sound all that interesting. People have been writing the western's obituary for decades now, particularly since Clint Eastwood so elegantly brought it to a seeming close with Unforgiven, but it's a genre ripe for parody. It was ripe for parody in 1973 when Mel Brooks inelegantly spoofed just about everything about it, but it still seemed like there were a handful of satirical buttons to push, and honestly MacFarlane seemed an inspired choice to push them. It's just too bad he couldn't think of anything to do beyond the title and a few rants that lose their effectiveness thanks to the bluntly stupid way they're presented.
MacFarlane isn't an actor. As much as he wants to be one, he just isn't, and though his easy-going charm lends itself well to certain kinds of roles, incongruously placing that same personality in the old west isn't funny in and of itself. The film wouldn't have worked any better with someone else in the lead role, so it's hard to lay too much of the blame at the feet of his performance, but this film has his name all over it, including no fewer than four credits in the opening titles, so it's similarly impossible to absolve him. Theron and Neeson are both very good, but utterly wasted on terrible material, and the film gives Ribisi, Silverman, and Seyfried nothing to do. NPH comes the closest to absolving himself of a nothing role, but his late film hat-shitting antics tarnish any goodwill he managed to build up prior.
The script for the film is atrocious, and where just about everything wrong with the film begins and ends. It's a completely tone deaf assortment of set pieces, none of which are funny enough to sustain a laugh that lasts longer than a split second. There are a couple of funny moments in the film, but the various trailers and commercials gave them all away, so if you're not even mildly amused by them, don't even bother checking out the film. Thankfully it looks nice, and cinematographer Michael Barrett does an admirable job of making the film look like a comedy, despite the disconcerting lack of comedy in the film. There are also at least five cameos, two of which are completely wordless throwaways, though one of the two that hasn't been spoiled is actually hysterically funny, but comes too late in the film to act as any sort of redemption.
Is A Million Ways To Die In The West the worst movie of all time? No, not by a long shot. Is it the worst movie of the year? No, there's been far too much fierce competition for that title already. MacFarlane is a talented guy, but he needs to stop holding out hope that anyone will take him seriously as an actor or director. He's good at one thing, infusing often sharp social satire with random pop culture references that come fast and furious, and succeed roughly 25% of the time. The moment he steps away from that formula, he flops about like a literal fish out of water. He may be guilty of trying to cram in four jokes where just one will suffice, but he often finds a way to make at least one of them funny. This film is completely absent that formula, and while that may appease a small segment of the population crying out for him to do something different, it will do nothing to appease his fans or convert his detractors. As a result, this film is just a total mess, and there are roughly a million better ways to spend your time and money, give or take a couple hundred.
GO Rating: 1.5/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]