Review: A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

A Million Ways to Die in the West


Seth MacFarlane
Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, Wellesley Wild
116 min.
Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Liam Neeson, Giovanni Ribisi, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman
MPAA Rating
R for strong crude and sexual content, language throughout, some violence and drug material

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Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but a true celebration of the art of the past takes it, embraces it and moves it forward. Seth MacFarlane hasn’t quite learned that lesson yet with A Million Ways to Die in the West a prime example of how to imitate, but not innovate.

MacFarlane plays Albert, a hapless shepherd whose recent love affair with Louise (Amanda Seyfried) has come to an abrupt halt when the more exciting and daring Moustachery operator Foy (Neil Patrick Harris) promises her the richness of life that a shepherd couldn’t possibly afford. Depressed by these outcomes, he seeks advice from his trepidatious friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and his prostitute girlfriend Ruth (Sarah Silverman) who haven’t consummated because she wants to preserve herself for the sanctity of marriage.

Anna (Theron) arrives in town while her husband, notorious sharp shooter Clinch (Liam Neeson), is settling his affairs. When she comes across the sheepish Albert in the local saloon, she sees in him a sweet, compassionate rancher whose lack of confidence prevents him from succeeding at anything. Under her wing, he begins to fly and a relationship forms, but the question becomes what Clinch will do when he finds out and we all know exactly where that’s heading.

MacFarlane’s comedy style is admittedly coarse. Rising to prominence on the popularity of his Fox television series A Family Guy, his focus on bountiful bits of pop culture humor has buoyed a career that could have flamed out a decade again. Like his contemporaries Trey Parker and Matt Stone, he’s parlayed his depraved sense of fun into a rich tapestry of funny, if repetitive, television productions including animated series American Dad and The Cleveland Show.

Two year ago, MacFarlane made the successful transition to the big screen with the lewd teddy bear Ted, making boatloads of money from a comedy that tickled funny bones at just the right time. Moving forward from that success, A Million Ways to Die in the West, a casual, sometimes vapid spoof on traditional and spaghetti westerns is not just reminiscent of Blazing Saddles, but seems to be a thematic copy, his attempt at flattering imitation. MacFarlane’s film seems most focused on tapping into the ludicrous comic styling that made Mel Brooks’ film so great without the moderated lunacy. Million Ways is loud, frequently boorish even if incredibly funny at times. Helping in that department is the incredibly adept support of co-star Charlize Theron.

Theron hasn’t been given enough opportunities to stretch her comedic muscles, but in A Million Ways to Die in the West, it’s clear she should be given more opportunities. She plays straight to MacFarlane’s outrageousness, tempering his volatile emotions and providing a moderating balance that keeps the film from teetering over the edge of idiocy.

While Theron keeps Anna from becoming your stereotypical female character without falling into one of two disappointing tracks for a lot of modern female protagonists. Anna isn’t just a butt-kicking, placeholder for a male counterpart designed to say “see, we can make strong women characters” without giving them depth or significance. She has an emotional side that doesn’t get in the way of her goals and desires, making her feel like a well-rounded, compassionate person who also happens to be strong and capable.

Praise can also be given to MacFarlane for writing such a strong character. Often accused of being overly misogynistic, MacFarlane easily deflects those criticisms with Anna, comparing her against the more stereotypical Louise. Louise is a woman more concerned about security and stability and being with a man who, in her perception, is stronger than she. Meanwhile, Anna doesn’t care if she’s stronger than the man she’s with as long as he treats her well and not like some piece of property that’s his to do with however he pleases. Then, by making Albert the kind of man who doesn’t have to be better than his significant other, he effectively shatters an unwritten character mold that has become pervasive even in femme-centric features.

No one in the cast compares quite as favorably to Theron as we would have hoped, they perform up to the expectations of the film’s tonality. This is a film of abject zaniness. It’s a film that doesn’t sit idly by waiting for a joke to make itself. It goes for the gusto even if it fumbles as a result. A Million Ways to Die in the West is filled with MacFarlane’s typical comedy schtick, poking fun at various modern sensibilities and situations, handling the world as if the Old West were still around, but sequestered behind a wall of obscurity. MacFarlane wants the film to be a modern Blazing Saddles so much that he forgets to infuse the film with stylistic distinctiveness that would make it feel less like a rip-off and more like an homage.

If you’re a fan of Family Guy, A Million Ways to Die in the West is quite a bit of fun. It may be a tad overzealous for those wanting a bit more subdued humor from their comic spoofs, but as a piece of entertainment that tickles your juvenile humor bones, you can’t really go wrong with this one.

Spoiler Discussion
Expanding on the concept of positive portrayals of women, MacFarlane goes a couple of steps further trying to give blacks and Native Americans a better standing in the film. Although there are no black characters in the film, there is a surprisingly blunt scene in which Anna and Albert are exploring the town carnival and come across a shooting game that involves killing runaway slaves. It’s such a completely unexpected reveal that the sheer shock has to wear away before you realize how subversive it is.

By giving the characters a chance to question the appropriateness of such a game in a family carnival, you quickly establish the attitude towards blacks in that time period while spinning it with a modern perception of race, creating a political commentary that is both heavy-handed and humorous.

The one scene to feature a black actor revolves around the same game, but is an end-credits stinger featuring Jamie Foxx reprising his role from Django Unchained and deciding to take care of the game proprietor for his transgression. While the original scene could have stood on its own without that, it’s a clever and fun moment with which to close out the film.

The Native American experience is better explored in the film through a segment in which Albert is captured by a tribe. Instead of killing him, they share a drug to help bring on visions to help him figure out what he should do about his situation with Clinch. After drinking far too much, he’s propelled into a Monty Python-inspired fever vision that is so laugh-out-loud outrageous that it makes up for some of the earlier idiocy that wasn’t quite as funny. That aside, he conducts himself with honor to the Native America tribe and they to him. While today, it wouldn’t exactly shatter the notion that Native Americans weren’t all baby-killing, murderous savages, it’s always good to see a western of any kind that treats them respectfully and not savagely.
Oscar Prospects
Unlikelies: Everything
Review Written
July 16, 2014

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