A Million Ways to Die in the West

A Million Ways to Die in the West photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgTaste is debatable, but comedy is the most subjective of genres. I have always maintained this and will continue to do so. Don’t believe me?  Millions of fans flocked to see Grown Ups 2 in 2013 much to the chagrin of the cognoscenti. Meanwhile in that every same year, audiences largely ignored critical darling The Way, Way Back, a far superior comedy in my opinion. Show me a person who doesn’t giggle once watching Office Space and I’ll show you someone who thinks it’s the funniest classic of the last 15 years. Unlike adventure, drama, romance or even horror, a good farce isn’t as reliant on quality. It simply needs to make you laugh. Sometimes a witty observation is all it takes, other times it’s a complex visual gag. Humor is in the mind of the beholder.  A Million Ways to Die in the West is a movie that made me chuckle. Quite a lot in fact.

Arizona in 1882 is a land meant for the rough and tumble macho cowboys of the Old West. Enter Albert Stark, a cowardly man who herds sheep. Writer/director/star Seth MacFarlane is a fish out of water very much in same spirit as Bob Hope in The Paleface (1948) or Don Knotts in its remake The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968). Right from the start we can see that Albert would rather tell jokes to get out of a tough situation than face a shootout with an outlaw. He makes crude gestures using the shadow of his opponent. It’s hysterical on one level because it’s a juvenile prank, but it’s also amusing because the shadow puppets are so unbelievably elaborate, no one could possibly do them. The layers is what makes the gag powerful and understanding that adds to its brilliance. Sadly some of the bits fail.

The pacing is already really slow and this picture feels overlong by about 30 minutes. It’s easy to see where cuts could’ve been made. Even the most sophisticated of us will laugh at scatological humor in the right context. Unfortunately, Seth MacFarlane too often wanders down that path. Foy (Neil Patrick Harris) is the mustachioed businessman who stole his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried).  It’s nice to see him get his comeuppance, but that doesn’t include what happens after Foy is slipped a laxative in his beer. Likewise the repetitive hammering of the same schtick doesn’t increase its punch, only time to the excessive length of the movie. Case in point. The town prostitute (Sarah Silverman) will sleep with anyone at the drop of a hat for money, yet is saving herself for marriage by abstaining with her boyfriend (Giovanni Ribisi). She is a good Christian woman for goodness sake! The joke is slightly amusing once, but not over and over throughout the entire film.

Seth MacFarlane plays Albert Stark like a modern man from 2014 plopped down in the middle of the Old West.  Anachronistic humor abounds. This gives him ample opportunity to riff on the difficulty of living on the wild frontier. Seth MacFarlane extracts wit in things that we have always known, but rarely stopped to think about. The idiosyncrasies of the era are mined for jokes. Whether it be that nobody ever smiled in photographs or that medicine was so bad, going to the doctor could actually make you sicker.  Most of his targets are clever and unique.  At times it’s almost like a stand-up act.  He exploits simple but obscure truths out loud. That makes them effective. There are several cameos too and every single one of them is a riot. Just don’t watch the trailer because it will spoil the best one. MacFarlane has nice chemistry with Charlize Theron who plays Anna, the wife of a notorious outlaw. When she busts up at his shenanigans, you genuinely feel like she’s not just acting. She truly thinks he’s funny. I have to admit, I do too.


20 Responses to “A Million Ways to Die in the West”

  1. Reposting from the facebook: I laughed a decent amount during the first half (why they saved the title song for the end credits and not the beginning is beyond me as it ought to’ve gotten the film off on better footing than that ostensibly sincere opening credit sequence against big epic backdrops… That said at a certain point around the halfway mark I’d gauge I realized I hadn’t laughed since that trailer-ruined cameo by a certain doctor…then there were some more hit and miss jokes and finally a great cameo in that drug sequence and then it was over and I stayed as long as the song was playing… That might just be me. It’s not the epic disaster/failure i’s made out to be but it’s an acquired taste this sense of humor and if it hasn’t worked for you before I’m not sure it will this time… Glad you enjoyed it 🙂


    • You bring up some great points. It’s just as concerned with being a sincere western (those completely straight opening titles) as it is with getting laughs, so yeah it’s an acquired taste. I would say it’s too smart for its own good, but then there’s all the scatological humor which kind of dumbs it down. I get that comedy is subjective but the way people paint this as some “epic failure” makes no sense.


  2. You’re right, comedy is the most subjective. But that’s also why I am starving for a comedy that I find funny. Modern Hollywood knows two kinds of comedy these days. The raunchy comedy like this one (which we get tons of) and the cheap Sandler stupidity. If you don’t like either one of those (like me), you’re out of luck. I love a good comedy but there is almost nothing on the modern landscape for me.


    • I mentioned The Way, Way Back in my review. It’s not raunchy or stupid. That came out less than a year ago.

      The problem is no one saw it. Hollywood makes what the people want: Ride Along, Neighbors, etc.


  3. This just isn’t that funny, and your review nails it. It is almost as if the producers thought the West could sell itself in humor, mixed with tons of fart and sex jokes. And I liked Ted, not a huge fan of FG but maybe Seth could have benefited from less Yes men here.


  4. I can see why some people like this. Heck, my dad did! Personally, I think it’s just that I didn’t like how so many jokes seemed to get repeated and didn’t add much of anything to the movie, except for a longer run-time. Good review Mark.


    • It’s repetitive in parts, but so was Neighbors with incessantly crude jokes. A Million Ways managed to poke fun at the Western genre with a lot of hilarious gags too.


  5. Good to see a different opinion in amongst the naysayers. I haven’t seen it yet, but judging by a lot of sniffy critics, there are more tumbleweeds than there should be. I’ll judge for myself thankyou very much! Great review!


  6. Well then. I do have to admit you drive a convincing argument and I can’t argue against any of the points here! I for once didn’t actually get to too many specifics in my write-up but I suppose if I had, I might have included some nods to his little quips about early medicine and the photo with a man smiling in it. I thought those sorts of jokes worked marvelously here, and there were actually quite a few of them too. On the whole I thought Macfarlane was really reaching though and seemed to be making stuff up on the spot. I can’t really state why I think it’s a lesser film than Ted, but I just feel like it is. Sometimes i have to just go with gut feeling. And this time it was grumbling. lol


    • I get that. Movies are an emotional experience and you have to go with how you felt at the end. Sometimes when we have to ascribe reasons why we liked or didn’t like something, it’s hard to put into words.


  7. Nice review. I despise Family Guy for its lazy use of a gag reel so this is something I’ll avoid. You’re one of the few people I’ve read who didn’t completely hate this.


    • Family Guy kind of fits somewhere between The Simpsons and South Park for me. It’s going into its 13th season this fall so I guess Seth MacFarlane’s success speaks for itself.


  8. I think this was very funny too. I like Seth Macfarlane, and think he’s very smart, and hilarious. Sure there were some misses, but over all, it really worked for me. When I laugh out loud that much. Then I have to say it was good. Charlize is very good comedic actress. I give this 3 1/2 stars.


  9. Agreed that there are some funny moments here, but I didn’t think there nearly enough to carry the film. Oh well.


  10. The cameos are a riot. Absolutely agree there. And the film has moments of brilliance, but for me A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST was mostly a miss. I couldn’t get on board with McFarlane’s standup like delivery of the material and I didn’t think very much of him as a leading man.


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