After the success of Ted, Seth MacFarlane’s future as a filmmaker seemed assured. When the sequel to Ted drops next June, his future may again seem so. But now, in the face of poor reviews and weak box office (and, for my money, the shortcomings of Ted itself), it’s fair to wonder whether MacFarlane is really cut out for the cinema. I won’t deny that I laughed, but A Million Ways to Die in the West is hugely uneven and often rather baffling. As I’ve said elsewhere, you might as well just watch Django Unchained or Blazing Saddles, unless you really want to see someone shit in a hat.
The plot is simple and hardly the center of attention. In 1882 Arizona, sheep farmer Albert Stark (MacFarlane) talks his way out of a duel, much to the disappointment of the townsfolk and Albert’s girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried), who leaves him, claiming she needs to “work on myself”. The despondent Albert discourses with his friends Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and Ruth (Sarah Silverman) on the wretchedness of life in the West (hence the title). After an unsuccessful attempt to win Louise back, and after she takes up with Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), owner of the local “moustachery”, Albert holes himself and drinks heavily, but one day at church meets Anna (Charlize Theron), and they become friends. Posing as Albert’s new girlfriend, they confront Foy and Louise at the local fair, and after a shooting match that Anna handily wins on Albert’s behalf, Albert challenges Foy to a duel.
Albert can’t shoot to save his life, and Anna agrees to train him; before long, he’s a competent shot. However, at a barn dance the night before the duel, Anna suggests to Albert that if Louise doesn’t appreciate Albert for who he is, then she and Foy deserve each other. She also spikes Foy’s drink with a mysterious powder which causes him to have horrific diarrhea, which puts a stop to the duel. She and Albert grow closer, even sharing a kiss–which is observed by her hot-headed “brother”, Lewis (Evan Jones), who is actually henchman to her husband, notorious outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson). When Clinch learns of this, he comes to town and vows to kill people at random unless the adulterer faces him in a duel.
Will Albert save the day? Or will he learn first-hand another way to die in the West?
Ted faltered because it attempted to impose too much plot onto its premise, including not one but two clichéd, predictable subplots which extended the running time and added few laughs. A Million Ways doesn’t do this, per se–convoluted as the set-up sounds, it’s not a hard film to follow–but it runs on for nearly two hours for no good reason, and unlike, say, Judd Apatow, whose films may be overstuffed (Knocked Up comes to mind) but use the extra time to build their characters, MacFarlane wastes a surpising amount of time on…nothing much, honestly.
So much about A Million Ways is baffling. The whole rhythm of the film is off, and not in a way that works in its favor. There’s a lot of dead air (the editing is not good, and a lot of shots go on too long), and MacFarlane’s direction is often flat and self-conscious, a failing which extends to the script (co-written with Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, who co-wrote Ted and are veterans of Family Guy), which more often than not pulls its punches and leaves one with a lot of strange moments which are neither funny nor particularly interesting. The whole film gives off a vibe of being made in a hurry, or as if MacFarlane spent a lot of the shooting schedule procrastinating before throwing the whole thing together overnight (who is he, me?).
Really, though, it’s surprising how often the film fails to deliver laughs, and how much of it doesn’t even seem to be aiming for humor. In one scene, Lewis escapes from prison by beating (and possibly killing) the sheriff. It’s an ugly, bloody scene, and it’s hard to tell just why it’s in the film. For a film whose central theme seems to be the lethal awfulness of the Old West, it doesn’t capitalize on the comic possibilities. There are some attempts (a photographer’s flash sets him on fire, catching his subjects on fire as well; the sheriff and his deputy resolve the situation by shooting them), but after a while the film seems to give up this thread in favor of Albert’s griping and…you know, I’ll be honest, it’s hard for me to remember a lot of the specifics here, because this film isn’t very memorable at all.
(Spoiler) I do remember the final gag, though, and it’s really stupid. Albert kills Clinch and ends up with Anna (shock). She says he’ll probably get a lot of reward money. Cut to them kissing passionately, surrounded by thousands of sheep. That’s the joke. And I don’t get it. How is it funny? Albert’s profession is pretty arbitrary (maybe the sheep represent his cowardice, but…meh), so how this gag could be considered a satisfactory ending to the film, I don’t know. (End spoilers)
There are also a few jokes that some people will doubtless find in extremely bad taste. I have no desire to describe them further; suffice to say, if you think you’re going to be offended, don’t bother seeing this. It’s not worth it.
Now, there are some funny parts to the movie. Ribisi and Silverman have a little subplot of their own: they’re in love, she’s the town whore, he’s a virgin, and they’ve vowed not to have sex until marriage. Once Clinch threatens everyone’s life, they decide to do so, and he is startled, yet transfixed, by the sight of a vagina. It’s crude and dumb, but Ribisi and Silverman make it rather sweet in its own way. And I chuckled at the sight of NPH expelling his bowels into a hat, desperately grabbing at a man’s head to get his hat, just so he can void himself some more (the results look like nothing so much as baked beans). And a lot of the one-off jokes–the Tooth Fairy gag, Gilbert Gottfried as “Abraham Lincoln”, a neglected corpse being dragged off by wolves–are definitely worth a laugh. I probably actually laughed more than I did at Ted, though Ted’s funniest scenes (Ted’s interviews with his cheerfully oblivious manager) are more hilarious than most of what’s on display here.
One thing I’ll give this credit for, though, is MacFarlane’s performance. Now, he’s not that great, per se, but I expected him to be the dead weight that brings the film down. And he’s not. Given the nebbishy nature of the role, and given the film’s overall tone, he actually does fine. He indulges himself, to be sure, and he’s definitely got a ways to go before he’s leading man material, but I owe him an apology. He still made a mediocre film, but he didn’t fuck it over with his acting.
Theron also does decently, displaying an easy, casual charm which compensates for Anna’s position in the story (the love interest who must Albert Become a Man). Neeson doesn’t get much to do other than growl, and Harris is let down by the rather dire douche-patter he’s stuck with (though he does what he can). Seyfried has virtually nothing to do (she also has a rather ungallant crack made at her about the size of her eyes); she doesn’t embarrass herself. Ribisi and Silverman steal the show with their light-hearted raunchiness, though Christopher Hagen gets a few good laughs as Albert’s obnoxious father.
Oh, and Wes Studi has a small role as Cochise. Thought I should mention that.
There are also a few cameos, which I won’t spoil. They serve mostly to remind me of better films.
Aside from the weak editing, the film is technically solid. The sets and costumes are hardly lacking, and a dream/drug-trip sequence boasts some nice visual effects. Nothing really worth dwelling on, but it gets the job done.
I suppose the best thing I could say about A Million Ways is it made me laugh and it didn’t piss me off. Flat though most of it was, I never really felt like walking out or dozing off. But unless you’re a MacFarlane diehard, I can’t really recommend it–unless you really want to see someone shit in a hat.