Review: A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

Director: Seth MacFarlane

Starring: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson

Release Date: 30th May 2014 (UK)

There are several things in comedy that just guarantee a solid-gold stinker. Anything with ‘by the team behind Scary/Epic/Date (etc) Movie’ above the title. Anything with Adam Sandler in a leading role. Anything featuring animals as central characters. Anything with Adam Sandl… oh, that’s been said already. These are movies that generate no level of expectation whatsoever, and as such are very hard to be disappointed by. But, as William Shakespeare said in All’s Well That Ends Well, ‘Oft expectation fails, and most oft there where most it promises’. Well, A Million Ways to Die in the West promised much, and perhaps that is why it is so ultimately unsatisfying.

Seth MacFarlane is very much comedy marmite. The success of Family Guy, The Cleveland Show, Ted, etc. is largely propelled by lovers of broad, zany humour. But for those of a slightly more discerning disposition, MacFarlane is just a tad too lowest common denominator. A Million Ways to Die in the West will not upset the status quo- it will not convert the non-believers, and it will not upset the die-hards. The movie basically relies on the simple premise that the wild west was indeed wild. That’s the gag. And it is rather funny, particularly when MacFarlane lists the (admittedly not a million) ways to die in the west. Unfortunately, that one laugh is not enough to hang a whole scene on, let alone a high-budget, feature-length production. To combat this issue, MacFarlane and fellow scriptwriters Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild chuck a whole bunch of toilet gags at the screen, in the hope that the audience will find the crassness somehow endearing. One running motif contains Giovanni Ribisi as a sweetheart Christian, whose wife Sarah Silverman engages in prostitution. Another features a series of conversations questioning why no-one smiles in photographs. Both would be perfectly adequate for a one-stop chuckle, but are categorically not enough to hang about ten minutes of screen time on. There are some laughs to be had, but they are too infrequent and somewhat muted by the mediocrity of their surroundings.

It is somewhat ironic amongst such crudeness that the best thing about the entire film is the rather touching relationship between MacFarlane’s cowardly sheep farmer Albert and Charlize Theron’s enigmatic badass Anna. The two share impressive chemistry, and perhaps if they were foregrounded in place of the body fluid jokes, A Million Ways may have been a more rewarding watch. Also impressive is Liam Neeson as the morally despicable and boringly- named outlaw Clinch Leatherwood, and Neil Patrick Harris as Albert’s ex’s new lover. The cast all do their bit, but with such shoddy material to work with, it would take a miracle (or Bill Murray) to make this truly work.

MacFarlane and co. clearly know their genre conventions- the beginning is a lovingly crafted homage to the opening credits of the pre-Leone era,  whilst the set design is predictably detailed and convincing. The problem, and it’s a biggie, is simply that it isn’t funny enough. File under ‘majorly disappointing’.