REVIEW: A Million Ways to Die in the West
I was hoping to be more offended by “A Million Ways to Die in the West.”
Each week on his show Family Guy, Seth McFarlane manages at least one joke that makes me cringe. It is as edgy a television show as there is on network television and many times I have muttered, “That’s not right,” under my breath even as I am laughing.
I expected McFarlane to push the envelope even further for the big screen as writer, director and star of the “Blazing Saddles-esque” “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” and for sure there are some wild and crazy gags—some may literally make you gag—but it feels safe. Like Judd Apatow, not McFarlane.
Set in Arizona’s wild west, McFarlane is Albert, a mild mannered sheep farmer who hates the frontier. “It’s a disgusting dirty place,” he says, “a cesspool of despair.” The despair of his day-to-day life is compounded when his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him and takes up with a wealthy owner of a moustache grooming shop (Neil Patrick Harris). He finds love again with a mysterious stranger Anna (Charlize Theron), who helps him cope with dangerous frontier life and grow a backbone. His newfound courage is tested when Anna’s husband, outlaw Clinch (Liam Neeson) rides into town.
Despite the similarities to “Blazing Saddles,” “A Million Ways to Die in the West” doesn’t have the satiric subtext that made Mel Brooks’ movie great. McFarlane takes stabs at racism and the social morays of 1880s—only he could create a prostitute character (Sarah Silverman) who loves her work but is saving herself for marriage—but here he comes off as Brooks Lite.
As the star he is funny by times, but his part is basically one joke. He’s the fish-out-of-water who speaks like a twenty first century smart aleck. For instance, as people around him are killed in increasingly wild ways—hence the movie’s title—he observes, “We should all just wear coffins for clothes.” It’s a good line, but his overall performance is more Bob Hope (with more than a hint of Peter Griffin in his voice) than John Wayne.
“A Million Ways to Die In the West” relies on anachronisms and shock value jokes to raise a smile, and spends too much time on the love story. Brooks went for the jugular, and forty years on it’s still funny and edgy. McFarlane’s movie does have at least one classic moment that will appeal to Generation Xers and the most undignified duel ever, but it doesn’t have much sardonic resonance.