A Million Ways to Die in the West

Albert Stark (Seth MacFarlane) is a sheep herder in Old Stump, Arizona in 1882 and he hates it.  Not only is he tired of smelling like sheep, he despises everything about his way of life:  He could get killed by a rattlesnake walking to his outhouse.  He could catch any one of several fatal diseases prevalent at the time.  He could look sideways at the wrong man and be killed on the street, plus innumerable other ways to die.  The only thing that brings him joy is his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried); however, when Albert chickens out of a duel with a cattle rancher whose land Albert’s sheep inadvertently grazed on, Louise decides she has had enough and dumps him for the proprietor of the local mustacherie, Foy (Neil Patrick Harris).  Meanwhile, the vicious outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson) and his gang are riding towards a stagecoach robbery.  To keep his wife Anna (Charlize Theron) out of harm’s way, Clinch sends her and one of his men, Lewis (Evan Jones) to the closest town, Old Stump.  Lewis kills a man at the saloon which starts a huge bar fight.  Albert and his best friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) try to stay out of the fray but Albert sees Anna as she’s about to be injured by some men falling over the second floor rail and saves her.  Lewis is arrested and charged with murder.  He’s likely to be hanged.  Albert and Anna begin talking and strike up a friendship, deciding to go to the county fair together.  There they run into Louise and Foy.  Foy derides Albert any chance he gets which drives Albert over the edge.  Albert challenges Foy to a duel, despite his complete uselessness with a gun.  Anna steps in and suggests the duel be set for one week later.  Anna, who knows her way around a gun, offers to teach Albert how to shoot to prepare for the duel.  As the lessons progress, Albert begins to gain confidence thanks to Anna’s support and encouragement.  With the duel the next morning, Albert and Anna attend a barn dance and afterwards, Albert walks her back to her hotel.  There, they kiss as the two have been falling in love; but that kiss was seen by Lewis who has broken out of jail.  He intends on telling Clinch what he’s seen knowing this will lead his boss to enact revenge on whoever kissed Anna.
If you removed the comedy from “A Million Ways to Die in the West” and made a straight western melodrama out of the story, it would probably be the kind of film you would have seen in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  As this is Seth MacFarlane, the story is framed by pratfalls and dirty jokes.  While it certainly isn’t as groundbreaking or funny as “Blazing Saddles,” it does manage to elicit enough laughs to be worth your time.
Fans of MacFarlane’s “Family Guy” or “American Dad” and his 2012 film “Ted” know what’s in store in the way of crude humor.  The film hits the ground running in that respect with the opening voice-over setting the stage with crude talk.  Throughout the film, we get graphic discussions of sexual practices and bathroom habits.  One particularly funny section involves a character reacting to a drug they are given by having uncontrollable diarrhea and using a couple of hats as makeshift toilets.  MacFarlane, who starred, directed, produced, co-wrote the script, provided lyrics for a couple of original songs and even played an instrument on the soundtrack, delivers much of his dialog in rapid, machine gun delivery.  He provides a series of ways to die or get killed in such a fast pace I was afraid he would pass out from oxygen deprivation.  That seems to be MacFarlane’s M.O. for the film, deliver the maximum number of jokes possible in the shortest amount of time.  This rapid fire approach means there’s more than a few jokes that are merely mild chuckles to downright groaners.  It also means there are more jokes that hit the mark.  It makes for a film you have to pay attention to in order to get the maximum number of laughs.
The story tends to get in the way of the laughs and causes the film to drag in spots.  It’s like MacFarlane wants his cake and eat it too as he wants to have a funny film that also has a meaningful message.  Sadly, that means taking a detour from time to time out of the funny zone and into the drama zone.  These two genres rarely work well together in a film that is supposed to be comedy.  You can get away with lighter moments in a drama as that breaks the tension of a sad or suspenseful plot.  It can put the brakes on a film that’s main mission is laughs.  At times, “A Million Ways to Die in the West” screeches to a standstill while MacFarlane and Theron make goo-goo eyes at each other.  The mixture of the two is not handled very well in this film.
Another problem with the movie is there is no chemistry between MacFarlane and Theron.  I don’t believe for one second they would ever be a couple.  What saves their on-screen relationship is Theron is a very good comic actress.  She manages to make Anna so likeable you are willing to overlook their lack of compatibility.  Theron gives Anna an open and understanding personality that is at odds with her being the long-time wife of a vicious outlaw.  Again, Theron is so appealing in the role that you are willing to overlook how implausible any of it is.
MacFarlane does best when he is working with the other actors in the film.  Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman, Neil Patrick Harris and Amanda Seyfried all draw out the best performances from MacFarlane as he is better able to play off of their character traits and react to their idiosyncrasies.  The supporting cast also shines without MacFarlane in numerous scenes.  Ribisi and Silverman, playing Edward and his prostitute girlfriend Ruth, have a couple of highlights which are far too raunchy to go over here.  Neil Patrick Harris chews up a great deal of scenery as Foy.  He acts bigger than life in some scenes while keeping it more under control in others.  He often steals the scenes he’s in with the flourishes he adds.  He was obviously given a great deal of freedom in how he played the part.  Perhaps he should have been reined in a little.
Like MacFarlane’s TV shows, “A Million Ways to Die in the West” has much of its humor on display in scenes that have nothing to do with the story.  There are non-sequiturs galore in the film where the most irreverent comedy comes from.  Explaining them won’t be nearly as funny as seeing them but, much like the jokes in the script, some of them hit better than others.
“A Million Ways to Die in the West” is rated R for language throughout, drug material, some violence and strong crude & sexual content.  There are deaths galore in the film ranging from a simple shooting death to a giant block of ice crushing a man’s head with blood and brain splattering, and several others falling in between.  Violence in the movie is common and sometimes very graphic with beatings, breaking limbs and blood on full display.  There are several descriptions of sexual activity, all of them of the crudest type.  The one sex scene shown on screen contains no nudity and is strictly for laughs.  We get a look at Liam Neeson’s bare backside (either his or a body double), again, strictly for laughs.  Foul language makes up a majority of the script.
Some comedies are focused like a laser beam but “A Million Ways to Die in the West” takes the shotgun approach and hopes as many jokes hit the target as possible.  Many do but many don’t as well.  The film isn’t helped by the clumsy mixing of comedy and story at the hands of director Seth MacFarlane; however, there are enough laughs to make the film worth your time and worth sitting through the slower parts.
“A Million Ways to Die in the West” gets four guitars out of five.
Another week means another group of films for your consideration.  Vote for the next movie I see and review.
Edge of Tomorrow—Caught in a time loop, a soldier (Tom Cruise) repeatedly relives the battle in which he died.
The Fault in Our Stars—Hazel and Gus are two extraordinary teenagers who share an acerbic wit, a disdain for the conventional, and a love that sweeps them on an unforgettable journey.
The Immigrant—The coming of age story of a young Russian immigrant in search of the American dream.
Palo Alto—Disaffected teens come of age under reckless circumstances, experimenting with drugs and engaging in ill-advised sexual affairs.
Stan’s Choice—Stan sees and reviews any film of his choice currently in theatres or On Demand.
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