A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)


Somewhere along the line it became a thing to hate Seth MacFarlane.  I have seen this many times before, and it is usually after someone with creative talent has a series of mainstream successes that also, improbably, become popular with critics and the "cool crowd" as well.  A small band of taste-makers and their band of critics that are more interested in celebrity access (or having their face occasionally illuminated by the same limelight) will, at some point, decide it's time for them to fail.

There are many cases where it is justified - M. Night Shyamalan quickly comes to mind - but in some situations it may be a temporary career misstep (Kevin Smith has had several of those) or, if they can't find anything specifically wrong, they'll start destroying your reputation by "reconsidering" your past work.  The latter is why John Hughes went from being a comedy genius in touch with the "youth of today" (i.e., my day, definitely not today) to being an evil, misogynistic piece of garbage - one that can't even defend himself, having died before most of the current critical reconsiderations of his films ever came about. 

That brings me back to Seth MacFarlane.  For me, he belongs kind of in the middle of all this.  I stopped watching Family Guy a long time ago when I realized that the only two characters he cared about at this point were Brian and Stewie, but for some reason didn't have the guts to either bring the show to an end or just change it to the Brian and Stewie show.  The writing became lazier the less he cared about it, and the more he became interested in American Dad.  Then, predictably, the same thing happened with that show, and it unfortunately didn't have a comedy duo paring to save it.  Ted was a decent film, but in the typical MacFarlane fashion of dragging a joke out too long, it took a 90-minute concept and almost made it two hours. 

Still, when MacFarlane actually decided he cared about a project, rather than just phoning it in, there was a lot of quality there.  Ted has genuine emotional and comedic moments, where the early seasons of Family Guy and American Dad (and, to a lesser extent, The Cleveland Show) have endlessly quotable lines and cutaway clips that make for great YouTube watching.  Also, while he was letting his main programs languish, he grabbed Neil DeGrasse Tyson and did a modern update of Cosmos with all the new discoveries that had been made since Carl Sagan's classic PBS series.  He also writes some of the best comedic musical numbers this side of Trey Parker. 

So, what went wrong with A Million Ways to Die in the West?  It was released at a time when MacFarlane hate was in full uproar, his main series were on a decline and even Hollywood was having enough of him - funny as he is, he was a horrible choice for hosting the Oscars.  It was also his first major production to feature himself in a major role, where in the past he had always provided voice talent.  It may not have really been the right time.  It was also not the right time for a comedy western, a genre that in over four decades has had one actual success in Blazing Saddles (I am purposely leaving out City Slickers due to it having a modern setting).

Albert Stark (MacFarlane) is a sheep farmer in Old Stump, Arizona, in 1882.  He is not a good sheep farmer, as his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) points out right before dumping him for someone a bit more successful: Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), the owner of the local Moustachery, who has money, a moustache and the masculinity that she thinks Albert lacks.  It's just one more reason for Stark to pack up and leave for San Francisco, as he hates living the frontier life and (literally) barely surviving from day to day.

So, he does what any responsible sheep farmer does who has just been dumped: get drunk with his best friend (Giovanni Ribisi) and his hooker girlfriend (Sarah Silverman) and drunkenly try to get Louise back.  Things do start to slowly look up upon the arrival of a new woman in town named Anna (Charlize Theron), supposedly arriving with her brother Lewis (Evan Jones) in Old Stump to start a farm.  Stark manages to save Anna from a collapsing railing during a bar fight at the saloon (which he and his friend Edward try to survive by play fighting in a corner), and she takes a liking to him.  Unfortunately, she is also the wife of Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), the most vicious outlaw in the territory, and her "brother" is another member of the gang.  After Stark loses his temper with Foy and challenges him to a gunfight, Anna takes it upon herself to teach Albert how to actually shoot so that he may have a chance of survival - one that shrinks when Lewis escapes jail and informs Clinch that his wife may be hanging out with another man.

One of the things I do have to compliment MacFarlane on is that he didn't take the easy route of trying to copy Blazing Saddles.  It is often said that movie could no be made today, which is true, but for completely different reasons than most people think.  Westerns may not have been as popular in the early 1970s as they were a decade earlier, but everyone old enough to be in the intended audience in 1974 would have understood the elements that were being parodied.  Not so much a 2014 audience, to which Westerns largely were ancient history.  A more serious take on old-style Westerns, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, was released in 2018, and received criticism for how Native Americans were portrayed, simply because many people watching didn't understand that the Coen Brothers were commenting on the way classic western films portrayed them.  They were not supporting prior racist views, but merely commenting on a part of cinematic history, and the majority of people watching (many who had to be Coen Brothers fans) just didn't get it because that point of reference was never in their experience.

That MacFarlane went ahead and did A Million Ways to Die in the West as his second movie (instead of just going for the money grab with Ted 2 right away) means that he did want to present audiences with a different take on this genre than we had seen before.  It also shows throughout the movie that this was a project he cared about and took time to invest in creatively.  As typical with his humor it does end up sliding in a bit too much modern jargon and having characters talk like bros (one of the few complaints I have about The Orville), but most of it is genuinely funny, which I find rare for any comedy these days.  I have to admit, after hearing so many bad things about this movie, that I was shocked to find myself liking it from the outset, as a majority of the jokes throughout the movie manage to hit their mark.

I think part of the problem is that many of these jokes also have to do with situations in the 1880s, including all songs being written by Stephen Foster and whether or not smiling for a photograph makes you look insane.  MacFarlane, despite often digging for the lowest common denominator jokes in a lot of his shows and movies, is a clever person, and a good portion of the humor this time around (like more recently on The Orville) reflects that.  The problem is, like with Ted, this movie should have been a nice 90 minutes.  Instead, it is close to two hours, and almost two and a half on the director's cut.  Unless you are Ghostbusters or The Blues Brothers, where there are so many elements to the movie to fill in the time between the jokes, there is rarely a reason for a comedy to exceed the 90-minute mark.  Because this one does, it has gaps to fill - and it fills them with having Foy fill a couple hats (as well with showing what they were filled with) and a detailed scene of Stark getting a golden shower from a sheep.  As one can imagine, they are about as funny to see as to describe, and perhaps less.  On top of that we have a silly, unnecessary drug trip/spiritual journey, even if the Native Americans do get some great lines in before and after.  I'm sure there may be some debates about their portrayal, but at least they weren't played by white guys with spray tans.

While I don't find Seth MacFarlane to be as bad an actor as Quentin Tarantino, they both have something in common - a punchable face.  Tarantino's is that of the a school bully's henchman, why MacFarlane is that of someone who is trying too hard to be accepted.  I've noticed that a bit of age has changed his look a bit, but here it is way too evident.  While he doesn't do a bad job in a starring role, MacFarlane still seems way too eager to please.  It's like a junior English major finally taking the class with the professor who is a respected writer and kind of a hero, turning in the first paper, hoping for an A but nervously expecting a C.  He still turns in a performance where you care about the character and are not constantly being reminded that he is performing in a role, but I think he may have bitten off a little more than he could chew at this point in his career, as he just seems nervous most of the times.  The times when does relax and lets more human elements of Stark come out (especially with Charlize Theron's genuine reactions to some of the jokes) shine.

Despite his seeming insecurity, he is still able to succeed in the role despite being surrounded by many more experienced actors.  Theron plays her role calm, cool and collected throughout, making a number of scenes that could have been played way over the top funny just because she doesn't try too hard to land the joke.  Liam Neeson gets to be his usual threatening self as the big, bad villain, and happily didn't have to fake an accent this time around.  Sarah Silverman also manages to take a role that could have been pure gross-out humor and make it something more, with her and Giovanni Ribisi brilliantly pulling off one of the best running jokes in the movie.  Not to mention there are a few cameos, including a mad scientist and a certain other gunslinger that shows up none too happy about a racist carnival game - and gets two of the best lines in the movie, including the only real reference to Blazing Saddles.

As for his job behind the scenes, he went the John Ford route and filmed partially in Monument Valley, even referencing the open door scenes from The Searchers.  I was happy after seeing the opening shots that the movie was going to be based in a town in Arizona, even if it was fictional.  Most of the framing and cinematography makes use of the open vistas of Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, wisely not wasting time with filters and such but instead giving it more of the look of a traditional American Western.  Unfortunately, there are

In many ways I believe A Million Ways to Die in the West suffered from the same backlash that the first season of The Orville did: MacFarlane had fallen out of favor with the elite critics who find it their job to set public tastes, and so all their followers made sure to parrot what they said.  However, what The Orville had going for it (at least initially) was it was on a free, traditional broadcast channel and wasn't something you had to go pay $15.00 to see.  Viewers quickly got to see what was up and realize that, much the way A Million Ways to Die in the West was a great tribute to American westerns, The Orville was an excellent tribute to '90s science fiction.  I think it benefited heavily from this movie being made, as it appears MacFarlane took some of the valid criticism to heart (less bodily fluid jokes and, if used, at least make it funny instead of just gross) and learning to balance the dramatic and comedic portions - as well as knowing what to cut and what to keep. 

I went into this movie expecting it to be a boring, unfunny slog.  Instead, despite a few wrong turns, I was kept consistently amused.  In my opinion I think this is better by far than Ted, and is a movie that should be reassessed in light of Seth MacFarlane's recent new-found success in other genres.  There is enough throughout that is both funny and entertaining that at some point it deserves to at least develop a cult status.  No, it's not as good, or even being close to as good, as Blazing Saddles, but it's not trying to be on that level.  It is, however, a movie that was unfortunate to be released at the wrong time, and maybe it has yet to find its true audience.

A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)
Time: 116 minutes
Starring: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman, Amanda Seyfried, Neil Patrick Harris
Director: Seth MacFarlane

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