In 1974, Mel Brooks’s film Blazing Saddles was released, becoming an instant classic of both the comedy and Western genres. Its unconventional humor, inventive story line, and incorporation of contemporary issues in a historical setting have placed it toward the top of the American Film Institute (AFI)’s list of best comedies, and it has been preserved by the Library of Congress for historical significance. A Million Ways to Die in the West, Seth MacFarlane’s new comedy Western, is not Blazing Saddles.
A Million Ways to Die in the West follows the trials of Albert (MacFarlane), a dorky sheep farmer who has just been dumped by his beautiful but rather shallow girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried). As he contemplates leaving the West and its million ways of dying, the area’s most dangerous outlaw (Liam Neeson) and his wife Anna (Charlize Theron) come to town. When Albert saves Anna’s life during a bar fight, they bond over their mutual hatred of living on the frontier. Anna agrees to help Albert win Louise back. If this synopsis seems a little bland, it’s because this isn’t the sort of movie you go see for the plot. Outside of the jokes and physical comedy, the actual story line and dialogue were so painfully cliché that I couldn’t help but wince.
MacFarlane, who wrote, directed, and stars in the film, is known for his wacky, often politically-incorrect jokes that will either leave you laughing out loud or cringing. A Million Ways to Die in the West sticks by this formula for the most part, and although there are none of the cutaways he relies on in his television show Family Guy, the pop culture references abound and there are plenty of poop and fart jokes. The best scene in the film, though, comes when MacFarlane breaks away from his typical brand of comedy and pokes fun at the weird practices of the 19th century and life on the frontier. The highlight of the movie, for me at least, is a sequence in which the main character is on an old-timey bicycle (the kind with a gigantic wheel in front) as he loses control going down a large hill. Comedy gold. Meanwhile, a 10-minute sequence of a character shitting into various people’s hats was not, but then again, it did receive the most laughs in the theater.
This was only MacFarlane’s second time acting in a live-action film; his first was as a supporting actor in the children’s movie Tooth Fairy featuring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and unfortunately MacFarlane isn’t a good-enough actor to carry a film on his own. A vast majority of the film consists of him complaining about how the American West is awful, and while some of his jokes about the medical practices and other ways to die in the West can be quite funny, he ultimately comes off as whiny and annoying. The other main actors, Theron and Neeson, also leave something to be desired. You can only do so much with awkward dialogue, but they both look especially stiff, and there is very little chemistry between MacFarlane and Theron. Although the main actors look and act like cardboard cutouts, the negative impact of their wooden performances is cushioned by a stellar supporting cast. Sarah Silverman and Neil Patrick Harris are a lot of fun as a prostitute and Albert’s mustachioed romantic rival respectively, but both have to work with material that seems a little beneath them and despite great comedic performances, neither was able to carry the movie.
A Million Ways to Die in the West is a diverting two hours, but the jokes and the story aren’t memorable enough to really draw you in or be worth revisiting later. Perhaps the main problem with the movie is not that it’s cliché (which it certainly is), but that it suffers from a crisis identity: It’s too over-the-top silly to function as a Western, but it takes itself too seriously for a comedy (and, besides, it’s not very funny). There are far better Westerns, comedies, and even comedy-Westerns that you could watch, and a million better ways to spend your time than watching A Million Ways to Die in the West.