Film Review: ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’

Seth MacFarlane steps out of the teddy-bear suit for an overlong, uninspired comic Western.

The saddles don’t blaze in “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” and the pacing is limper than a three-legged horse. In following up his 2012 smash “Ted” with a lavish comic Western, Seth MacFarlane has delivered a flaccid all-star farce that’s handsomely dressed up with nowhere to go for most of its padded two-hour running time. Pic faces a formidable box office duel in its opening frame against Disney’s costly “Maleficent,” but regardless of the outcome there, it won’t come within striking distance of “Ted’s” $549 million global gold rush.

While it may be too tall an order to expect MacFarlane to deliver at the level of classic Mel Brooks (or Quentin Tarantino), “A Million Ways” fails to measure up to even its own creator’s high standard for nose-thumbing irreverence. Indeed, from “Family Guy” to “Ted,” we’ve come to expect the 40-year-old wunderkind to go for broke and, when he fails, to go down swinging (as in his valiant but misjudged paean to Hollywood cleavage at the 2013 Oscars). What you don’t expect from MacFarlane is a genteel, weightless genre parody that, even with its de rigueur parade of dick and fart jokes, is unlikely to offend anyone born after the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

But that’s exactly what MacFarlane serves up in this tale of a nebbish sheep farmer who falls for a gorgeous moll and finds his inner gunslinger in the process. When we first meet him, MacFarlane’s Albert Stark has just weaseled his way out of a gunfight in the 1880s frontier town of Old Stump, Ariz., and been promptly dumped by girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried), who already has her doe eyes set on the town’s cocky “mustachery” impresario Foy (Neil Patrick Harris, the ends of his ’stache pomaded into airtight curls). So a disconsolate Albert returns to the family homestead and tends to his disobedient flock, until chance brings him face to face with strapping new-girl-in-town Anna (Charlize Theron), who fails to mention that she’s actually the wife of the most feared bandit for miles around, Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson).

Much of “A Million Ways” devotes itself to Albert’s efforts to win back the hand of his erstwhile lady love, though it’s a measure of the movie’s lazy writing (by MacFarlane and co-scribes Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild) that Louise never materializes enough as a character for us to understand what drew Albert to her in the first place. Having impulsively challenged Foy to a duel, the gun-shy Albert gets a crash course in marksmanship from crack shot Anna — a “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head”-style montage during which one senses teacher and student developing more than a mere educational bond. And it’s largely thanks to the wonderfully loose, sassy Theron that the film stays as engaging as it does for as long as it does. Theron isn’t given much to do here, but she makes the most of it, which is more than can be said for Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman, who seem trapped in the ninth circle of comic hell as a virginal shoemaker and the prostitute girlfriend who refuses to sleep with him before their wedding night.

Watching “A Million Ways,” it feels as if MacFarlane fell in love with the idea of doing a comic Western and decided he’d worry about the particulars as he went along, resulting in a disjointed series of sketches linked together by lovingly photographed Monument Valley panoramas. In one of the movie’s more inspired bits, Albert quells a tense encounter with the Apache leader Cochise (Wes Studi) by demonstrating a mastery of the Indian tongue, but MacFarlane almost ruins the joke by following it up with a distended peyote dream sequence during which the movie veers perilously close to an ego-soaked vanity project.

Periodically, MacFarlane tries to gussy things up with off-color humor that simply feels off (like a “runaway slave” shooting gallery at the county fair) and a few gross-out gags that land with bigger thuds than the giant ice block that vividly crushes one character’s head into pulp. But nothing in the movie is quite so limiting as the presence of MacFarlane himself in a lead role he proves ill fit to carry. In his first live-action lead, he lumbers through the film spouting dialogue that sounds like an extended standup riff about the horrors of the Old West, all delivered with a modern, ironic-hipster smirk. The effect is not unlike that of seeing Brooks or Woody Allen in their own historical comedies, where they continued to “do” their patented comic personas even when the setting was the Napoleonic Wars or the Spanish Inquisition. Except that MacFarlane, who rose to prominence as an ingenious voice actor, proves surprisingly bland in the flesh, and his unmodulated delivery eventually runs as dry as the desert sands.

The movie benefits from an expensive period look courtesy of production designer Stephen Lineweaver and costume designer Cindy Evans (who dolls Theron up in one particularly memorable green plaid number with an enormous bustle), though MacFarlane seems at a loss, visually, when he has to stage a barroom brawl or an elaborate folk-dancing sequence. Michael Barrett’s widescreen cinematography looks crisp by day, but has a somewhat milky, washed-out quality in the night scenes. A surfeit of unbilled celebrity cameos serves mainly to remind us what cool friends MacFarlane has.

Film Review: 'A Million Ways to Die in the West'

Reviewed at AMC Loews Lincoln Square, New York, May 27, 2014. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 115 MIN.  

Production

A Universal release presented with MRC of a Bluegrass Films production. Produced by Scott Stuber, Jason Clark, Seth MacFarlane. Executive producers, Alec Sulkin, Wellesley Wild. Co-producer, Eric Heffron.

Crew

Directed by Seth MacFarlane. Screenplay, MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, Wellesley Wild. Camera (Technicolor, widescreen), Michael Barrett; editor, Jeff Freeman; music, Joel McNeely; choreographer, Rob Ashford; production designer, Stephen Lineweaver; supervising art director, Peter Borck; art director, Bryan Felty; set decorators, Carla Curry, Libbe Green Eyers; set designers, Brooke Peters, Siobhan Roome; costume designer, Cindy Evans; sound (Datasat/Dolby Digital), David Brownlow; sound designer/supervising sound editor, Elliott L. Koretz; re-recording mixers, Anna Behlmer, Terry Porter; visual effects supervisor, Blair Clark; visual effects producer, Fiona Chilton; visual effects, Tippett Studio, Iloura, Incessant Rain; stunt coordinator, Scott Rogers; associate producers, Kelly Cronin, Aaron McPherson, Joseph Micucci; assistant director, Eric Heffron; second unit director, Scott Rogers; second unit camera, Paul Elliott; casting, Sheila Jaffe.

With

Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Liam Neeson, Giovanni Ribisi, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman, Christopher Hagen, Wes Studi, Matt Clark, Evan Jones, Aaron McPherson, Rex Linn, Brett Rickaby, Alex Borstein, Ralph Garman, John Aylward, Jay Patterson, Amick Byram, Dennis Haskins, Christopher Lloyd, Gilbert Gottfried, Ewan McGregor, John Michael Higgins, Julius Sharpe. (Apache, English dialogue)

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  1. T Cobble says:

    “A Million Ways To Die In The West” trailers are grossly misleading as well as being the funniest part of the whole production. There needs to be a new rating to help identify how low and disgusting film-makers minds can be! I suggest “RDP – Regurgitatingly Disgusting Pornography!” The trailers gave nothing about how pornographic the movie is! This movie is the most grossly waste of time and money at a comic attempt to be funny! You want funny & hilarious? The writers, producers, directors, and actors need to take lessons from the master comedian entertainer “Red Skelton” who brought audiences to tears of joy and roll in the aisles without a word of filthy, vulgar garbage being uttered. This movie comes from the gutter minds it should have stayed in! There is nothing artistic, funny, or redeeming about this movie and it’s actors.

  2. Brad says:

    As a huge fan of Family Guy and American Dad, I was hugely disappointed with this film. Seth will now become the butt of the very jokes that he aims at his Hollywood peers. With any luck Family Guy’s Brian will write the review.

  3. Rick says:

    I have lost all respect for anyone associated with this film.

  4. Ken says:

    Wish I had read the reviews before I went. I read an article, on Liam Neeson in Cowboys and Indians magazine, that made the movie sound like it was of similar quality to Blazing Saddles. How wrong they and I were. MY WIFE AND I WALKED OUT. When we got outside we tried to remember when we had been to a movie so bad that we left, and finally concluded it was a first for both of us. And we go to a lot of movies.

    I thought Liam Neeson and Charlize Theron were to intelligent to get themselves involved in a movie of such low quality. This is a lesson in choosing a movie partially because stars of there capability are in it. I will be more careful next time.

  5. All I know right now is the previews for this movie look awesome. I will see it and hopefully I will like it. I tend to think critics are over cynical anyway and never like any good movies.

  6. Russell Edgington says:

    Seth MacFarlane smirks just a little too much, like he’s trying to make his gross out humor palatable because he’s such a nice intelligent man-boy or something.

  7. dsmith says:

    I hated it. I really wanted to like it because of the previews which featured some of the highlights of a painfully unfunny movie.

  8. Shawn Dando says:

    To each your own. Just because this guy don’t like it doesn’t mean I won’t love it. The world needs dick jokes in comedy westerns. Hell we need more comedy westerns. And with Seth Mcfarlane I believe he has enough pizazz and gunth to write Spaceballs 2, (with Mel Brooks Permission)

  9. peter says:

    TED sucked. The best part was when the teddy bear was cut in half and his stuffing fell all over the football field!

  10. big daddy D says:

    I love Seth McFarland. I’ll see this movie. Maybe I’ll laugh my ass off too. Who knows.

  11. Rodger Ferguson says:

    MacFarlane’s Oscar song took powerful female performances (a few that even depicted rape) and reduced them to nothing more than an excuse to objectify their bodies. This is the very definition of misogyny.

    I’m all for offensive comedy that challenges and offends our notions of propriety, and even Seth MacFarlane has created bits that manage to do this. But “We Saw Your Boobies” was not one of those bits. It was objectively horrible and wrong.

    The fact that Scott Foundas could champion such an indisputably deplorable event as a “valiant but misjudged paean to Hollywood cleavage” — especially in the midst of the anti-women vitriol we’re seeing in the wake of #YesAllWomen and the Elliot Rodgers shooting — is disturbing and disappointing. The song’s subtextual message was “you can do amazing work and win and Oscar for it, but ultimately your still a pair of t*ts.” There’s nothing valiant about that.

    • >MacFarlane’s Oscar song took powerful female performances (a few that even depicted rape) and reduced them to nothing more than an excuse to objectify their bodies. This is the very definition of misogyny.

      Not really, the entire point of the piece was the idea that he was so foolish he had to be told not to go ahead with something that was clearly a bad and wrong idea.

      • Rodger Ferguson says:

        Putting a “meta” spin on an anti-women joke doesn’t make it any less anti-women. I could buy your logic if his song had gotten cut off 5 seconds in, and the joke really had been about Seth Macfarlane misjudging how his humor would be received. But this wasn’t the case. The “bad idea” became the main event and the butt of joke shifted from poking fun at Macfarlane to demeaning the work of every talented woman in the room.

        Imagine applying your same logic if the joke was racist instead of anti-women. Shatner comes from the future and tells Seth “not to go ahead with something that was clearly a bad and wrong idea” and then we’re subjected to a lengthy racist song called “black people can’t act” where Seth mocks various african-american performances in movies. I don’t think you’d be championing the brilliant “meta” spin Seth put on the racist joke. I think you’d just be calling him a racist.

  12. Kudos to Seth for trying however I wasn’t much of a Ted fan either, I think the concept had potential, a modern day “blazing saddles” type but I think it’s fallen very short of that. Personally I feel this is a perfect example of when artists stretch themselves too thin and end up loosing more ground as opposed to gaining. Sure there is a certain type of crowd this will appeal too but all-in-all I don’t see too much to be proud or boastful about with this film. Sorry! :) just my opinion, everyone’s entitled to their own. :)

  13. Cowgirl says:

    I went to an advance screening of this movie, and it was very funny (be warned, you will be offended at something in it). It is the best comedy this summer and has more humor than Neighbors and Blended. I actually really like the wardrobe even though it seemed a little polished at times. Charlize Theron’s character of Anna is my favorite.

  14. djl, ny says:

    was this supposed to be a period film or a modern day romp with “jokes”? if the former, what the hell were they thinking? the leads look as if they simply rolled out of bed. no attempt to recreate the look of a previous time period was jarring at least and most times simply looked as if they didn’t have a stylists at all. the few “attempts” at a period look appeared to be more of “PUT CURLS ON THEM, that will look old fashioned” but it s didn’t, it just pulled focus and was wrong. they should have hired someone that knew what they were doing.
    walked out of film for the horrid hair alone.

  15. Nanny Mo says:

    And Seth looks old and worn out too, poor guy. I saw him in the trailer in a theater. In 4K you could see his crow’s feet and tired eyes, but worse the jokes were his same ole low brow style. If it had been released closer to Christmas at least I could have written, “Bah, Humbug.”

  16. Dex says:

    The stench of bitter envy is strong on this page.

  17. I assure you folks, I’m not a psyche , but after several trailers and teasers were on the web, I had the same reaction that no comedy classic was at hand.

  18. Leon says:

    hahaha so sad. This is the exact same writer who hated Ted when it first came out too. You are such a loser, those who can’t, complain.

    • Dave Baxter says:

      Ha, so I guess that means that you can’t even write reviews, and are soaking in the bitterest of envies that Scott here gets to write pro reviews when all you can do is complain about them. You’re right, that logic actually does make perfect sense!

    • Todd Jacobs says:

      Aren’t you complaining about the review? Maybe you shouldn’t review Scott Foundas.

  19. Glenn C. says:

    Looks really really stupid. What a waste of everything!

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