Albert Stark (Seth MacFarlane) is a cowardly sheepherder in Old Stump Township, Arizona, who hates everything about frontier life. To make matters worse, his girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), just dumped him for Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), the wealthy owner of the town’s “Moustachery.” Just as Albert’s about to pack up and head to Francisco, he meets Anna (Charlize Theron), a gun-slinging beauty, who teaches him how to shoot after he challenges Foy to a duel. But Albert starts to develop feelings for Anna, who he later learns is married to deadly outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson).
A Million Ways to Die wants to be Blazing Saddles so bad, which isn’t surprising, considering Seth MacFarlane loves older films. But the problem is MacFarlane isn’t Mel Brooks. Where Brooks (one of the best comedy writers/directors of the last century) never misses an opportunity to address cultural issues through wacky caricatures or jokes, MacFarlane’s work is often hit-and-miss, focusing too much on being offensive (just to be offensive) rather than on true parody.
Don’t get me wrong—I love Seth MacFarlane. The first five seasons of Family Guy (arguably a few episodes here and there after that), the Blue Harvest trilogy, and Ted were all brilliant. And I’m pretty sure I’m one of the few people who actually liked his Oscars hosting. But MacFarlane, as of late, has been so far up his own ass that he isn’t able to write nearly as well as he used to. The same is true of his writing partners, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild. And you can see how far their writing has devolved in A Million Ways to Die in the West.
For the most part, A Million Ways to Die in the West relies heavily on the same tired gags throughout the entire movie (I kid you not. They made the same mustache joke about 20 times). Not to mention, the movie started out seeming like it was going to make a point about how shitty life was in the Old West, but then it turned into this “Nice guys don’t finish last” story about self-confidence that was shallow and, well, boring. As a comedy writer, how can you create a title like A Million Ways to Die in the West and NOT go all out on the concept?
Honestly, the times I laughed the hardest were during the jokes about the conditions of the Old West. Because Hollywood (since forever) has tried to convince us that the Old West was fun and not a terrible place to live—in other words, it’s not just a black cowboy woo-ha-ha-ing his way through the aftermath of the Civil War (Anybody?).
There’s a scene where MacFarlane’s Stark rants about his hatred for the Old West—specifically about how everything will kill you—to his friends, Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and Ruth (Sarah Silverman). He takes them outside, pointing to a man who looks like he’s passed out drunk in the street, and says, “That’s our mayor. He’s been dead for three days.” Not only is this funny because it’s not what you were expecting, but it also makes you wonder how (and why) nobody in a small town noticed that their highest ranking official was dead. And then two seconds later, wolves drag the mayor’s body off into the night, as if to further prove his point about the frontier being awful.
And then there were the jokes like the doctor prescribing a bluejay to peck at wounds. Or the medicinal tonics with cocaine, mercury with chalk, and red flannel (Yes, the shirt). Or even the deaths ranging from saloon fights and cholera to Native American attacks. And, for god’s sake, the “People die at the fair” gag! They could’ve gone so much farther with these jokes. But instead, they fell back on poop jokes. F***ING POOP JOKES. Like I said, this movie won’t make you die of laughter because most of the jokes in this movie aren’t new.
What’s sad to me is that this movie pales in comparison to Ted, which was created by the same goddamn people. It’s not fair to compare the two since they’re from very different sections of comedy, I know. But when you set the bar with a consistently hilarious movie devoted to making a point about life (like all good comedies do), you’re going to disappoint when you can’t deliver a comedy that’s just as good or better. And that’s exactly how I felt about A Million Ways to Die in the West. It’s basically The Cleveland Show to Ted‘s Family Guy.
On a final note, make sure you watch for the cameos—Alex Borstein, Ewan McGregor, Christopher Lloyd, Ryan Reynolds, and Jamie Foxx.
Overall, A Million Ways to Die in the West is at its best when it actually embraces the western genre and pokes fun at how Hollywood has portrayed the frontier as a fun, badass place to live (when, in reality, people were dying left and right in horrible ways). Beyond that, even the actors seem like they’re just going through the motions in this movie, for which I blame a poorly-crafted script of overused jokes.