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A Million Ways To Die In The West Review: A Fistful Of Mediocrity

There is something tricky about describing a creation of Seth MacFarlane’s to the uninitiated that takes a lot of practice and fine-line tip-toeing to fully master. You do not want to just blurt out the basic premise for fear of scaring someone off: ‘It’s about a dirty-talking, raunchy teddy bear who’s Mark Walberg’s BFF’. You have to be more subtle, i.e. ‘it’s about a kid who wishes his teddy bear to come to life, and what happens to their friendship when they grow up; also: dick jokes’. A Million Ways To Die In The West, MacFarlane’s second directorial debut, easily fits into the comedian’s slapsticky, non-sequitur filled universe alongside the likes of Ted and Family Guy. It just does not quite deserve to be there.

Opening on a duel between MacFarlane’s Albert and a rough-and-tough outlaw, we are immediately introduced to the film’s main gimmick (and just like every other MacFarlane creation, the gimmick here is clever and without any negative connotation): Albert is not from this time. He makes fun of the outlaw’s slow wit, asking if they could reschedule the duel, and simulating fellatio with their shadows practically before we even know his name. He is not exactly from 2014, or any other specific point in time, but he is severely self-aware of the world around him.

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He goes on a diatribe early in the movie pointing out those eponymous ways to die, dissecting the West far more than anyone around him would ever care to, and thinking of it as an actual point in time that had a beginning and will have an end, and not just the end-all, be-all finite truth. With all his moaning about losing his unworthy girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) and sarcastic bon mots, all he needs is a shirt that says “I Hate The West” and he would be cemented as the world’s very first hipster. Hell there is even a plot point about him growing an obnoxiously intricate and completely impractical mustache. And an entire song about them!

The story is pretty bare bones and exists solely to pull Albert and friends along to one comedic set piece after another. In a sentence: A meek and gun-shy sheep herder must learn to master the ways of the gun to beat the most dangerous criminal in the territory and save his friends and win the heart of the new woman in town in the process. There are a lot of learning-to-shoot montages that would have been easier to watch had 90% of them not been shown in a trailer, and the plot as a whole does not feel meaty.

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The social commentary of the era is there, however, providing the most food for thought. Westerns are not exactly known for their intricate plotting, but having such a flimsy story in a comedy relies all of the jokes to fall back on the characters. And it works, sporadically. MacFarlane, as a live-action character, is a bit one note, but he pretty much consistently nails it. He and Theron’s blooming relationship actually is one of the most endearing things about the movie. Their proclaimed shared love of hating the West (and most other people) unites them. And though the inevitable third-act betrayal is entirely predictable, along with a sort of out-of-nowhere proclamation of love, neither MacFarlane nor Theron allow it to get too serious or sappy.

Others, like Giovanni Ribisi as a virgin dating a whore played by Sarah Silverman, are not quite as successful. The story there is that he is naïve and not bothered by her promiscuity, and that she wants to wait to have sex with him until they marry. It is cute, provides a bit more skewering of modern day beliefs, and works the first time they bring it out, but then the thinness starts to show because that is the only angle they have on the joke. After that it is Ribisi and Silverman’s job to carry it, and though they are great actors and do shoulder what they are given to work with, there is just nothing that interesting about them on anything below a surface level. He is not sure what a vagina looks like and she can smoke a cigar, ash on a guy’s balls, and give him a hand job at the same time. Sure, it’s funny in the respective moments, but there is nothing memorable or, more important, quotable, once the story’s opaqueness is revealed.

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That being said, it does all work… for a while. The parodying of a society who thinks their ways are the only way there will ever be and that there is no way it will change contributes a handful of truly brilliant running gags, along with being surprisingly smart thematically and relevant to modern day. I will not give away the best jokes, because you have probably seen them already in the eager-to-please trailers. But if your sense of humor is in line with MacFarlane’s work, there is no reason you would not enjoy this.

As to those who either are not fans of his or do not know who he is, well, it goes like any other artist’s work: it depends. There are jokes in here that I think work on multiple levels that everyone should find funny. My screening was about 75% full of people 50+ years old, and they laughed pretty consistently at the street-level gags, and groaned in equal measure to the ones I guffawed at. Just be aware that this is not a sidesplitting, fall-out-of-your seat time at the movies. You will laugh, you just will not walk out wanting to see it again and own it on Blu-ray in a few months.

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And therein lies the problem with A Million Ways To Die In The West: if you do not want to see a comedy again, then the movie has failed in its most basic mission: repeatability. Think about your favorite comedy and how many times you can watch it, quote it, adore it, and never get sick of it. I am hard pressed to think of anyone who will find that magic with A Million Ways. It has got a pretty great premise, but does not follow through with a compelling enough plot, memorable characters, or enough gags that will have you laughing simply thinking about them a few years later (Aquarium Tank Joke from Ted, I’m lookin’ at you).

You should not avoid MacFarlane’s first foray into a live-action role, and you are more likely to enjoy yourself if you have not seen any trailers for it, but those going in because of the giant green font on the poster that says “From the guy who brought you Ted”, will likely be disappointed.

Rating
6.5
Pros
  • MacFarlane's performance
  • Jokes that work are hysterical
  • Fun final cameo
Cons
  • Great cast feels wasted on unmemorable characters
  • Biggest laughs spoiled in the advertising campaign
  • Flimsy plot, even for a Western
  • Large gaps between jokes that work

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