After 2012's "Ted" was a surprise hit, Seth MacFarlane had carte blanche in Hollywood. He hosted the 2013 Academy Awards, and he was given the green light to film "A Million Ways to Die in the West," in which he also served as director and co-writer (with Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild). "A Million Ways" is a thoroughly tongue-in-cheek film, and any comparisons to "Blazing Saddles" would be unfair, since it doesn't have such lofty goals. It just wants to tell you why frontier life sucked.
MacFarlane stars as Albert Stark, a mediocre sheep farmer in Old Stump, Arizona, in the year 1882. He talks his way out of a gunfight, after which his embarrassed girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him for Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). He's ready to pull up stakes and move to San Francisco when Anna (Charlize Theron) rides into town. He saves her in a bar fight, and they become friends over their mutual hatred of life in the West. She takes him under her wing to help him win back his girl and teach him to shoot. He starts to fall in love with Anna, but what he doesn't know is that she's the wife of a dangerous outlaw, Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson).
"A Million Ways" is basically a series of comedy skits about frontier life, so it feels really disjointed. It ends up being less than the sum of its parts because stringing together a bunch of sketches doesn't make for a cohesive movie experience. The plot is too simple to flesh out the film and camouflage this shortcoming.
The movie manages to stay (mostly) on point until Albert drinks too much peyote during a powwow with some Apache Indians. What ensues is an overly long love letter to Salvador Dali that definitely could've been wrapped up sooner. There's also a musical number that I could've done without.
For many comedies, the funniest moments are in the movie trailers, and viewers are disappointed when they realize that they've seen all of the highlights before setting foot in the theater. Happily, that's not the case here — not even in the red band trailers. This is certainly helped by the sheer amount of humorous content in the film.
Humor is subjective, though, so it's the movie's greatest strength and weakness. The material should be familiar to fans of "Family Guy" and "Ted": bodily fluids and functions, sex, and racist jokes. If you're a fan of MacFarlane, then you'll have a great time and laugh until you cry. You might even need to go to a second screening because you were laughing too hard the first time. If you find his material to be tasteless, then "A Million Ways" won't change your mind because it's more of the same, just set in the gorgeous Monument Valley.
Theron is an Oscar-winning dramatic actress, but she proves to be just as good at rude comedy. She's very convincing and is easily the best thing about the entire film. I was very surprised at how game the cast was for the comic antics, especially Harris and Neeson. Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and Ruth (Sarah Silverman) round out the cast and add some flavor — not that it's really needed.
Unfortunately, the weakest actor of the bunch is MacFarlane, who looks way too modern and well groomed to fit in on the frontier, but that is perhaps the point. He's a great master of voices in "Family Guy" and "Ted," but he lacks screen presence as a live action actor, which is a problem since he's the protagonist. He seems to treat it like a stand-up comedy engagement, and that's how it feels most of the time.
There are a number of uncredited cameos in the movie, including one after the credits. Part of the fun is to encounter them for yourself, so I'll let the mystery linger.
For everything that "A Million Ways to Die in the West" manages to do right, it has a corresponding misstep. There are some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments, but the film can't decide whether it wants to be witty or juvenile, and this indecision contributes to the movie's fragmented feel. There's a lot of star power in this comedy, but it's dragged down by MacFarlane's lackluster performance. "A Million Ways" isn't nearly as interesting or innovative as "Ted," but fans of MacFarlane and/or rude humor will find a lot to like. Those who are easily offended should steer clear.
"A Million Ways to Die in the West" is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 56 minutes. It's showing in 2-D.
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