A Million Ways to Die in the West

By on June 5, 2014

Much like “fetch” in the immortal “Mean Girls,” Hollywood keeps trying to make the Western happen, but it seems some things do go out of style, and the Western is definitely one of them. Sure, the Coen Brothers acquitted themselves nicely with their remake of “True Grit,” which garnered its fair share of Oscar noms, but didn’t exactly light the box office on fire. Overall, though, it’s a dying genre, which makes you wonder why they keep trying. (Looking at you, “Lone Ranger.”)

Enter “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” the latest Western to throw its cowboy hat into the ring. This one aims to reinvent the comedy-western for a new generation: think “Blazing Saddles” by way of “Family Guy.” Or not, as the case turns out. I bring up that show because the movie is directed by Seth MacFarlane, he of the FOX Sunday night “Animation Domination” block, and overseer of “Family Guy,” “American Dad” and the late, somewhat lamented “The Cleveland Show.”

MacFarlane is known for his rapid fire, cutaway laden, pop culture-heavy, oft off-color sense of humor, which translated surprisingly well into movie form in his directorial debut “Ted.” That film was a huge hit about a foul-mouthed teddy bear come to life that riffed on everything from the 80’s incarnation of “Flash Gordon” to…Norah Jones, because, why not? In short, it was basically not that far removed from his animated work, so it worked like gangbusters despite the live-action format.

Amanda Seyfried, Neil Patrick Harris, Seth MacFarlane, and Charlize Theron take aim at their comedic targets in "A Million Ways to Die in the West." Courtesy of imdb.com

Amanda Seyfried, Neil Patrick Harris, Seth MacFarlane, and Charlize Theron take aim at their comedic targets in “A Million Ways to Die in the West.”
Courtesy of imdb.com

Alas, “A Million Ways to Die in the West” does not. The film has a lot going for it, to be sure. The location shooting in New Mexico and Utah is breathtakingly gorgeous, with awe-inspiring cinematography that would do John Ford proud. The cast is to die for, and includes a host of people not exactly known for the comedy thing, like Charlize Theron and Liam Neeson, plus a secondary cast of comedic sure hands like Sarah Silverman, Neil Patrick Harris and- speaking of “Mean Girls”- Amanda Seyfried, just to be safe.

MacFarlane knows his comedy and he knows the best way to get laughs is to play ridiculousness straight, a la “Airplane!” and the best of Mel Brooks- including, of course, “Blazing Saddles.” His work here, though, is surprisingly restrained- too restrained, in fact. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I get that a lot of people don’t much care for his ADD take on comedy in his animated stuff, but a cartoon’s a cartoon, and what works there might not translate so well in movie form.

Except that in “Ted,” it kind of did. And in “Airplane!” And in “Blazing Saddles” and “History of the World Part 1” and “Spaceballs” and plenty more where that came from. The great thing about those classic comedies is that the jokes keep flying so fast and furious that for every one that lands with a thud, there’s another waiting around the pike that doesn’t.

Sure, this approach hasn’t worked as well for the likes of “Superhero Movie” and “Epic Movie” and a host of other spoof films, but that’s because the writers and filmmakers tend to focus their efforts on spoofing one specific thing instead of aiming for the fences and just trying to be funny. Mel Brooks’ stuff holds up because it’s not spoofing a specific film, but an entire genre and all the tropes involved. “Young Frankenstein” is ostensibly a spoof of “Frankenstein,” but really, it’s a spoof of old-school horror movies in general. “Spaceballs” is a spoof of “Star Wars,” but really, it’s a spoof of sci-fi movies in general. You get the idea.

Yes, something like “Scary Movie” might spoof a variety of horror movies, and even throw in a few random pop culture jabs for good measure, but many of those latter jokes won’t even make sense to future generations, and the former stuff is a bit too on-the-nose to be as funny as it could be. The art of crafting satire is a tricky one, and truth be told, it’s hard to say what makes one comedy work where another doesn’t. Hell, one could even make a case for the fact that no comedy works for everyone, and that humor is completely subjective.

The thing is, I do like MacFarlane, and I do watch his shows and I liked “Ted” a lot. Therefore, his sense of humor is, in fact, my type of humor. So, then, why does “West” fall so flat? Honestly, I think it’s the timing. I’ll allow that what works in an animated show might not work on screen, but it did in “Ted” and yet, for some reason, MacFarlane chooses to abandon it here.

“West” is deadly methodical and painfully slow in pacing. It clocks in at nearly two hours long, which is a big no-no for comedic movies, which should never go much further than ninety minutes long. I like Judd Apatow’s stuff as much as any fan, but even I know that his films would be infinitely better if they were that much shorter. As someone who excels in that shortened format on a near-weekly basis, you’d think MacFarlane would know that, too.

What’s worse, the trailer plays like gangbusters. The film I saw in the trailer is the film I wanted to see. That film looks hilarious. The film I actually saw is one in which all the best jokes were blown in the trailer, and what was left was a lot of exposition and plot points designed to get from Point A to Point B- only, thanks to the trailer, you could see Point B coming from a mile away. I’ll allow that the trailer thing was likely not MacFarlane’s fault, but one should never give away the best parts in a trailer, any more than one should give away too many plot twists in a suspense or mystery film trailer. If you do that, why bother seeing the film? You’d think Hollywood would get that.

Sarah Silverman and Giovanni Ribisi try to hide their shame in "A Million Ways to Die in the West." Courtesy of imdb.com

Sarah Silverman and Giovanni Ribisi try to hide their shame in “A Million Ways to Die in the West.”
Courtesy of imdb.com

As I sit here, I literally can’t think of a single good joke not ruined by the trailer, and that includes the stuff that earned the film its R-rating. I seem to recall Sarah Silverman getting off- literally and figuratively, as she plays a prostitute in the film- a few jokes that made me laugh, but I’d be willing to bet hard cash she improv’d them on the fly and they weren’t even in the script.

Theron and Neeson are game for anything and everything, but the film rarely does anything fun with them, save maybe some business involving Neeson’s bare butt and a flower. (Don’t ask, but suffice it to say, these two are a long way from Oscar-land.) Seyfried has a natural gift for screwball comedy that is severely underutilized, but you’d never know that here, as the only laugh she gets is by- be still my heart- sucking on the curly end of a moustache. On the other end of said moustache is Harris, who likewise only manages a chuckle when he poops in a hat. Yep, it’s that kind of movie.

I just don’t get it. It’s as if MacFarlane got so wrapped up in making his Western seem authentic that he forgot to make it funny. Even worse, given the essential plotline, it didn’t even necessarily need to be a Western in the first place. All you’d have to do is change the time period and it would practically be the same movie, sans the gun duels and the like. Instead, MacFarlane has spent some $40 million dollars to make a movie into a convincing period piece with mostly modern humor. Oh no, he didn’t! Oh, yes, he did.

The shame of it is, I wanted to like the film. I laughed at the trailer, I like the cast, I like MacFarlane. But sadly, the only thing dying in this Western is the laughter, which was all but non-existent in the theater I attended. Oh well. There’s always “Ted 2.” Until that inevitable sequel, “A Million Ways to Die in the West” gets a C- at best. Stick with “Blazing Saddles.” Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

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About Mark Trammell

Mark Trammell is the resident entertainment critic at UAB, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he is also a Graduate Student and does a vid-cast movie review show. He is a life-long fan of films and has a pretty whacked-out, all-over-the-place movie collection that would give most sane people pause. He loves horror movies and Disney flicks and isn't entirely sure there is a difference. He one day hopes to put his money where his mouth is and inflict his own perverse vision on society, entirely so that he can tell people who ask: "If you think you can do better, why don't you make a movie yourself?" to shut up.
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