The last couple of years for Seth MacFarlane have been up-and-down — if always high profile. His stint as the host of the 2013 Academy Awards generated controversy befitting of the creator of Family Guy, while his 2012 feature film debut, Ted, earned mostly positive reviews and a great box office haul north of $200 million.
McFarlane’s back with A Million Ways to Die in the West, in which he makes a rare in-the-flesh appearance in addition to writing, directing and producing the film. McFarlane plays Albert, a farmer in the Old West in 1882 who doesn’t quite seem to fit with his times.
The story as a whole contains few surprises, especially because the ubiquitous TV ads have spoiled many of them.
After being dumped by his girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), Albert strikes up a friendship with Anna (Charlize Theron), who, unbeknownst to Albert, is also the wife of notorious gunslinger Clinch (Liam Neeson). Anna helps Albert gain courage in many different respects, including standing up to Louise’s new beau, Foy (Neil Patrick Harris).
The funny conceit of the film is that even though the characters live in the Old West, their view of everything going on around them is decidedly modern. Consequently, every ridiculous cliché that’s been put forth in previous westerns is called out for how inane they are, usually by Albert.
Strangely, for a film called A Million Ways to Die in the West, there are relatively few deaths. The nearly two-hour film contains maybe 10 to 15 people actually dying, or a fraction of the deaths found in your standard action film.
The story as a whole contains few surprises, especially because the ubiquitous TV ads have spoiled many of them. What remains is not necessarily bad, but neither is it as over-the-top as one would expect from McFarlane. He tries to toe the line between sweet and offensive, an attempt that never quite works.
The best example of this is the relationship between Albert’s friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and his girlfiend, Ruth (Sarah Silverman), who also happens to be a prostitute. A running joke has Ruth continually denying Edward sex despite the fact that she sleeps with upwards of 10 men a day. Ruth’s descriptions of her trysts are par for the course for anyone who’s seen Silverman’s act; they’re funny, but never overly so.
MacFarlane acquits himself well without the crutch of a funny voice, although his timing is a bit off in certain scenes and takes away from the punch lines. Theron also does well, proving her comedic chops again, and Harris is always a welcome sight, lending his cocky and suave personality to the proceedings.
The idea behind A Million Ways to Die in the West is much better than the actual execution of it. If MacFarlane had just thrown caution to the wind and jumped in with both feet, he might’ve had a winner. As it is, it’s merely a so-so effort that doesn’t recognize its own strengths.