MacFarlane’s middling ‘Million Ways To Die in The West’

by Trevan McGee on June 1, 2014

in Print Reviews,Reviews

Seth MacFarlane returns to the director’s chair with A Million Ways To Die In The West, a shaggy dog comedy that places MacFarlane front and center, not as a computer-generated Teddy bear, but as Albert Stark, a sheep herder who hates the time period and frontier with a passion. Of course, “shaggy dog” is just another way of saying, “lazy” or “unfunny.” MacFarlane is an easy target for critics and people who dislike him just because of the audience his TV shows have cultivated, but movies like this don’t make him any easier to defend.

On paper, the premise of A Million Ways To Die In The West is strong. Creating a John Ford/Howard Hawkes-era Western, and placing a black sheep who hates the frontier at the heart of story gives plenty of opportunity for parody of both the genre and the time period. As the title would imply, there’s room to depict some truly graphic and hilarious death sequences, as well. This makes it all the more puzzling that most of the jokes are warmed-over sitcom setups and observational humor that rarely aspires to more than, “living in the West sure was tough.”

What’s more, the script repeatedly dilutes its humor by continually stepping on its own punchlines. MacFarlane, along with co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild just can’t let a joke hang. Often times, A Million Ways To Die In The West will create a setup, deliver a punchline and then make another two or three jokes after the fact that aren’t funny, and ultimately undermine the original joke. It’s a strange, regularly occurring problem that happens too often to be accidental, but never manages to improve the material.

There are some good things about the film. MacFarlane is a serviceable lead. His chemistry with Charlize Theron is tangible. Neil Patrick Harris is another bright spot, playing a truly weird rival to MacFarlane’s character with verbal and physical flourishes that are often the best part about any scene he’s in.

In the end, A Million Ways To Die In The West is a lazy, mostly unfunny chore that squanders a solid premise on fart jokes and  unfunny sight gags. It may fare well as a piece of counter-programming to the summer blockbuster fatigue, but beyond that it leaves a lot to be desired.

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