Oct 2, 2020
A Million Ways (for jokes) to Die in the West (2014)
A Million Ways to Die in the West was released in the wake of the success of Seth MacFarlane’s previous live-action film, Ted. This latest outing, a crude send-up of movie westerns, is not only directed, produced, and written by MacFarlane, he’s also given himself the lead role as a character who’s fought over by Amanda Seyfried and Charlize Theron.
This movie was likely pitched to execs as, “Seth MacFarlane does everything in his power to overcome the Griffins’ shadow,” and while he certainly mugs at the camera enough to grab our attention, he doesn’t make us laugh enough to keep it. Aside from MacFarlane, Seyfried, and Theron, the film features (and wastes) a talented cast including Sarah Silverman, Liam Neeson, Neil Patrick Harris, and Giovanni Ribisi.
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The film begins in 1882 in the town of Old Stump, Arizona, where sheep farmer Albert Stark (MacFarlane) chickens out of a duel, and subsequently loses the affections of his girlfriend Louise (Seyfried).
Albert confides in his friends Edward (Ribisi) and Ruth (Silverman) about his heartbreak, after making the first of numerous jokes about how people never smiled in old photographs. We also get the beginnings of another running gag when we find out Ruth is a whore working in an actual whorehouse, who graphically describes what she does on the job to her boyfriend Edward but still refuses to have sex with him.
Meanwhile, outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Neeson) flees from a robbery, and has one of his men take his wife Anna (Theron) to Old Stump and hide her away while he does his outlaw stuff. They go to a saloon, where a huge bar fight breaks out, and Albert saves Anna from being injured by a couple of brawlers. Anna’s bodyguard is arrested, Albert and Anna quickly bond, and after a few moonlit conversations where they talk about how much it sucks to live in the Old West, they attend the county fair and run into Louise and her new man, the mustachioed Foy (Harris).
Albert and Foy have a contest where they shoot at a racist “Escaped Slave” duck hunt game, and Albert loses. But then Anna steps up and challenges Foy, and reveals herself to be quite the sharpshooter. Foy is angered by being shown up by a woman, and challenges Albert to a duel. On his way home, Albert sees lights coming from a barn, and peeks in for a throwaway gag where Christopher Lloyd cameos as Doc Brown circa Back to the Future III, working on the DeLorean.
Anna then tries to teach Albert how to shoot, but it’s basically hopeless. They then go to a square dance, where Bill Maher cameos as a standup comic and Foy and several men do a big musical number about how great it is to have a mustache.
Later, Anna pours a laxative into Foy’s drink, which causes him to have extreme diarrhea just before the duel. Foy recovers, but Albert once again backs out of the duel. Unfortunately for him, Clinch arrives in town and hears of Anna’s unfaithfulness, and he challenges Albert to, you guessed it, another duel.
Anna then runs away from Clinch and back to Albert’s sheep farm. Clinch comes after them, and while trying to escape, Albert gets captured by Indians. They’re about to burn him at the stake, but he impresses Chief Cochise (Wes Studi) by showing that he knows their language (all made-up gibberish, of course), so they offer him peyote as a gift.
During the peyote trip, we get lots of random, absurd CGI imagery in lieu of actual jokes, but eventually it makes Albert realize that Anna is the woman he’s destined to marry, and it’s up to him to save her from Clinch’s clinches. When it’s time for the duel, Albert shoots Clinch, but only grazes him. But then he explains that the bullet was laced with poisonous snake venom. Clinch dies and an impressed Louise wants to take him back, but he’s in love with Anna now, the end.
Oh, and for one final throwaway cameo, Jamie Foxx appears as Django, showing up at the county fair to shoot the owner of the “Escaped Slave” game.
My appreciation for Seth MacFarlane is often conflicted: on one hand, he has talent and can create truly funny scenes. Some Family Guy sketches are still hilarious to me, and he’s a great voice actor. On the other hand, he generates a lot of output without ever really doing anything different. Even though this film takes place in the Wild West, a totally new and different setting for MacFarlane, he mostly just copies and pastes his usual jokes, making this another faded version of everything he’s done before.
I don’t necessarily mind if a comedian does the same thing each time. Many comics find a rhythm that works for them, and they smartly choose to stick with it instead of trying everything under the sun. But MacFarlane is essentially at the point of repeating the same old nasty gags, apparently just for the sake of nastiness.
Nastiness can work in a film, and the best of the Farrelly Brothers proves this. However, it needs some sort of emotional grounding to work. While few can truly identify with the characters of Dumb and Dumber, many can relate to the fear of having a loud digestive episode at your dream date’s house. MacFarlane fails to provide a similar sort of grounding or humanity to his jokes, making them hollow and unfunny. Excrement isn’t funny in and of itself, and neither is Sarah Silverman with fake jizz on her face. It’s like someone saw Ted and decided what it was really missing was a ton of fart and shit jokes.
Of course, anyone seeing this knows what they’re getting into, and I doubt any of MacFarlane’s fans were expecting anything more than some cheap laughs. Unfortunately, the movie only provides a handful of funny moments, and that’s not enough to carry the film. The jokes often fall flat, not only because they aren’t written well, but because of MacFarlane’s terrible acting. He’s the kind of performer who comes off much better when he’s doing animation. And also, when he has a decent script.
The scenes that maybe have a tinge of humor, like where characters complain about how horrible life is in the West, are ruined by his smirky, smug performance. It’s tiring, and the lack of strong jokes makes the whole film a mess. What it all amounts to is MacFarlane mugging like crazy in response to bodily fluids and boring slapstick violence, and way too many near-dramatic scenes that don’t even attempt to be humorous. Not even the cameos from Christopher Lloyd or Jamie Foxx or Gilbert Gottfried (as Abraham Lincoln) or Ryan Reynolds (as… himself?) can save the film.
The film is like a live-action Family Guy in a lot of ways (which could have been funny), but it misses the mark with stale direction, a poorly-cast lead, and an all-around tired script. Frankly, this film could be renamed A Million Ways to Tell the Same Joke.