Film Review: A Million Ways to Die in the West

This review was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 3rd June 2014.

After making a splash on the big screen with his directorial debut, the hilarious Ted (he also voiced the titular talking teddy bear), Seth MacFarlane returns with A Million Ways to Die in the West. Still a powerhouse on television with his three ongoing animation franchises, Family Guy, American Dad! and The Cleveland Show, MacFarlane has placed himself front and centre in the lead role, a gutsy move considering his usual place is behind the camera or microphone, and his poorly received gig hosting the Oscars last year.

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From the beautiful opening aerial visuals of Monument Valley, Utah, alongside a memorable rousing score by Joel McNeely, it is clear that MacFarlane and his co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild love westerns. By the end of the film, you’ll also know that MacFarlane and company also love fart, excrement and lowbrow sexual gags. If you like (or love) all of this stuff, you will have a great time with A Million Ways to Die in the West. I certainly did. I’ve even gone as far as to recommend it to my dad, a western fan, although I have a suspicion that I may live to regret that decision.

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Albert Stark (MacFarlane) is a sheep farmer with limited prospects and a lack of the courage required to survive in the Wild West. When his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) leaves him for the far more successful moustache product merchant Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), Albert befriends the beautiful and gunsmart Anna (Charlize Theron) who agrees to help him win his beloved back. Unfortunately, Anna is married to the psychotic criminal Clinch (Liam Neeson), and their blossoming relationship soon has Albert preparing to meet his maker in the inevitable gunfight with Clinch, that is, if he survives a shootout with Foy first.

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MacFarlane has assembled a fantastic cast that is pretty much willing to do anything in the name of laughs. I’ve always found Charlize Theron to be lacking in warmth onscreen but on this occasion she radiates charisma, and clearly has a strong chemistry with MacFarlane. Neil Patrick Harris is at his smarmy, campy best. And the combination of Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman as a devoutly religious couple who are saving themselves for marriage despite her occupation as a prostitute is dynamite. As for MacFarlane himself, he makes a relatable leading man and I’d like to see more of him in front of the camera.

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A Million Ways to Die in the West is a very knowing comedy. Our hero Albert is well aware that life in the Wild West is hard and usually cut short by a multitude of deadly factors (many of them hilariously depicted onscreen). With quite a few current pop culture references, it is best described as a modern comedy that happens to be set in 1882.

The high water mark for the comedy western is undoubtably Mel Brooks’ sublime Blazing Saddles. Sure, it had fart jokes too, but they worked on more than one level. The famous baked beans scene (I can’t believe I am trying to argue that a fart joke is sophisticated) is not only funny for obvious reasons but it is also clever because it breaks the long established contrivances of the genre. Combine this with the confronting reflections on race and you have a comedy western that has something to say. MacFarlane’s film isn’t nearly half as smart and has nothing more to say than life in 1882 sucked, but that doesn’t stop it from being a laugh a minute romp that those with open minds will enjoy.

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