Review: “A Million Ways to Die in the West”

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Flash back to 2004; I was in the sixth grade. My DVD collection was pretty-much none existent at that point, except for three full seasons of my favorite TV show: Family Guy. I discovered Family Guy when I was finally allowed to stay up past 11 on the weekends. I went downstairs, flipped on Adult Swim, and turned the volume down so my parents couldn’t hear what I was watching. (I’d perform this same ritual a year later with South Park).

As a kid raised on Nickelodeon cartoons, Seth MacFarlanes’ flagship show was kind of a revelation to an eleven year old mind. A cartoon with fart jokes and sex jokes? Forget the fact that I didn’t understand about 90% of the pop culture references. Sixth grade me could not have asked for anything more. And the same year, news came that the show had been brought back from cancellation for more seasons!

The show was hitting the mainstream, and I, a humble sixth grader, was coming along for the ride! I didn’t know what this “Seth MacFarlene” guy looked like or where he came from, but I thought he must have been some sort of genius. Did I mention there were sex jokes in addition to fart jokes in this show? Oh, man.

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Well, turns out this genius would explode farther into the mainstream than I ever expected. First Fox granted him two more cartoons; by the third one I had stopped watching any of his shows, but the world had not (I guess there are always more sixth graders to take my place).

Then he was given a feature-length movie Ted in 2012, at which point I had grown bored of his repetitive jokes and increasing reliance on blunt crassness. Maybe I had grown up. Maybe he had gotten less funny. But one thing’s for sure — he had not grown less cocky.

In what seems like part of a well-crafted plan, he snuck his face into the public consciousness by hosting the Oscars, a stunt that awarded him exactly the controversy he probably always dreamed of, making him come off like a “hilarious” fourteen-year old crashing an adult party. Once his admittedly-handsome face was out there, his next step would be his most aggressive – starring in his own film.

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Well, I’m happy (?) to report that MacFarlane doesn’t do a terrible job as lead actor. He’s snarky and delivers his lines as he would in his cartoons (the movie, like Ted, is basically a live-action episode of Family Guy after all). It’s true that he’s not exactly charismatic, and he lacks that one important thing called emotion.  But given the kinds of things he makes himself say, he certainly doesn’t seem too out of place,  even up amongst heavyweights Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, and Neil Patrick Harris (except the off-putting amount of orange makeup caked on his face).

The movie is a full-on satire not just of the old-fashioned Western genre, but of the Old West itself and all of the terrible things you wouldn’t think about or see in an actual Western. MacFarlene’s character Albert seems to be the only one who notices how terrible everything is there, besides for the fact that the two women he has to choose from are Charlize Theron and Amanda Seyfried.

The problem is his movie itself often isn’t that funny.  If a movie like Neighbors had me laughing constantly, A Million Ways merely had me smiling occasionally.

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With the removal of TV censorship, MacFarlane seems a bit like a rabid dog let off his leash, trying to come up with jokes that are as dirty, and often juvenile, as possible. “TOO HOT FOR TV!” What’s most unforgivable is that there is a large chunk of the film where every joke MacFarlane delivers is met with laughter from Theron’s character. That’s right. For some of this movie, he  had the balls to basically put a laugh track (albeit an attractive one) into his movie.

In addition, he obviously knew which jokes were the funniest, since the few that did get genuine chuckles out of me are repeated into the ground, as is his style. It took him multiple seasons to overuse all of Family Guy’s best gags, but he accomplishes it here in two hours. Bravo. But hey, even if they are eventually overused, the jokes that are funny should still get credit for being funny. The best thing I can say about the movie is that there’s probably about one Family Guy episode’s worth of good material.

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But this isn’t a TV show, so MacFarlane had to at least try and include a real story with real drama and emotion. He did the same thing with Ted and it didn’t work. He tries to do the same thing in certain episodes of Family Guy and it definitely doesn’t work. But here he outdoes himself.

About halfway through the movie, the barrage of jokes are replaced by actual plot developments that includes a chase sequence, a kidnapping, a professing of love, etc. Other comedies do this, so why doesn’t it work for MacFarlane? Well, his whole shtick is that he’s so over-the-top that he creates a universe where serious subjects like death, child marriage, and rape are supposed to be funny. The characters are just devices for spouting one-liners.

The problem is, at some point the movie suddenly asks us to actually take it seriously. It suddenly wants us to believe that the stakes are real, and we’re asked to care about the characters. But it doesn’t work like that. We are given no reason to care. Especially not since the plot is so full of cliches. He’s fairly good at lambasting the Western genre, but he’s practically inept at actually emulating one.

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It isn’t a train-wreck on the level of The Hangover Part III. Some of the gags are even clever enough that I might even tune in to parts of it if I saw it on HBO. And who knows, maybe it’ll be a wakeup call to MacFarlane that there are in fact flaws in his work (after all, this his first project to be both critically and commercially disappointing). The movie is at its best when its firing off so many jokes that some of them are bound to make an impact. I just wish he had the ability — or maybe just the desire — to elevate his comedic powers past simply serving as an R-rated version of his TV shows.

Score: 2 out of 5

– Sam

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