D: Seth MacFarlane / 116m
Cast: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Liam Neeson, Giovanni Ribisi, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman, Christopher Hagen, Wes Studi, Matt Clark, John Aylward, Evan Jones
It’s 1882, and on the edge of the wild frontier is the town of Old Stump, a place that epitomises the daily fight for survival, where “everything that isn’t you, wants to kill you”. So believes Albert Stark (MacFarlane), a sheep farmer with low self esteem and a girlfriend, Louise (Seyfried) who dumps him after he chickens out of a gunfight. Hurt, angry and depressed, Albert hides away at his farm until his best friend, Edward (Ribisi) persuades him to come back into town and try and win back Louise. It soon becomes clear though that Louise has moved on, and she’s now seeing smarmy moustache salesman Foy (Harris). Meanwhile, vicious outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Neeson), riding nearby on his way to rob a stagecoach with his gang, decides to keep his wife, Anna (Theron) out of harm’s way and tells her to hide out in Old Stump until he can come back for her.
When a fight breaks out in Old Stump’s saloon, Albert saves Anna from being injured and a friendship develops between them. He tells her about Louise and Anna agrees to help Albert win her back. At the County Fair, Albert’s attempts to make Louise jealous by pretending Anna is his new girlfriend backfires when he ends up challenging Foy to a gunfight in a week’s time. Albert has never fired a gun before and proves to be the worst shot in the world, but with Anna teaching him he slowly improves. As the week progresses, Albert grows in confidence, and he and Anna begin to fall in love. When Clinch comes to Old Stump he learns that Anna has been seen kissing another man, and he makes it clear that unless the man in question meets him at high noon the next day, he’ll keep killing the townspeople until he does.
Anna is forced to reveal Albert’s identity to Clinch. She gets away from him and warns Albert who runs away. An encounter with Cochise (Studi) and some serious peyote reveals Albert’s true courage and he returns to town to face Clinch and go through with the gunfight.
As you’d expect from a movie starring, and written and directed by, Seth MacFarlane, A Million Ways to Die in the West does its best to raise big laughs, and there are plenty of laugh out loud moments that are either inspired or just plain funny (the movie’s best gag is also its most contentious, the Runaway Slave Shooting Gallery). But there are also too many occasions when the humour falls flat, though to be fair it’s the attempts at injecting modern, gross-out gags into the mix that generally don’t work (except for one priceless combination of sound effect and line of dialogue that sounds like an outtake from Family Guy). Albert’s claim that the West is a horrible place to live in is reinforced by some great sight gags, and Foy’s need for a hat at one point is a joy to watch. And then there’s Edward’s girlfriend Ruth (Silverman), a prostitute who believes they shouldn’t have sex until they’re married, but who sleeps with around ten men each day (when things are slow). All these aspects help to make A Million Ways to Die in the West one of the most entertaining comedies of recent years (though your appreciation for MacFarlane’s line in humour will go some way to determining that).
What does come as a surprise is MacFarlane’s handling of some of the other elements. The romance between Albert and Anna is well thought out and handled with care, making it quite affecting, and MacFarlane ups his game during these scenes, matching Theron for soulfulness and charm. Their romance is the heart of the movie and MacFarlane takes more care with these scenes than he does with most of the comedy, and proves himself a better director here than elsewhere. He’s matched by Theron – who’s clearly enjoying herself – and even though the movie slows down a bit to accommodate this particular subplot, there’s no harm done. There’s also some beautiful location photography, with the glories of Monument Valley on display throughout, and the score encapsulates nods to all the great Western musical themes without descending entirely into pastiche. MacFarlane obviously has a love of the genre, and even though he spends as much time spoofing it as he does celebrating it, that appreciation shines through and provides the soul of the movie.
He’s helped by a great cast. Theron, as noted above, has a whale of a time. She hasn’t made a comedy since Waking Up in Reno (2002) – though the uncharitable of you out there might opt for Æon Flux (2005) – but on this evidence casting directors need to be looking at her anew. She has a lightness of touch that makes her comic timing quite subtle. Seyfried, unfortunately, is given very little to do except hang on Harris’s arm, though the sight of Louise giving head to Foy’s moustache is definitely an image not to be forgotten. Harris is an appropriately hissable secondary villain, while Neeson plays it straight as the dastardly Clinch. As the “virginal” lovers, Edward and Ruth, Ribisi and Silverman are given plenty of opportunities to shine as all good sidekicks should be, and there’s a number of cameos that add to the overall feel good vibe that MacFarlane engenders from start to finish (one in particular, featuring a character from another movie series altogether, is an unexpected delight).
On the minus side, and despite all the positives, MacFarlane’s script is in need of some judicious pruning, and as a result the movie is uneven and the various elements don’t always gel. Scenes overrun, while others feel in need of further development, as if MacFarlane has thought of a great idea but isn’t sure where to take it; the end result is an addition to the movie that doesn’t feel right (the hallucination sequence toward the end is a good case in point). Again, there are too many jokes that don’t work, or seem forced, and while the cast all acquit themselves well, there are too many occasions when they’re foundering trying to make a joke work. Also, the last third plays much as if MacFarlane hadn’t quite worked out the ending, and there’s an air of settlement about the whole thing, as if it was the best conclusion he could think of. Considering the attention given to the build-up, it’s a major disappointment (and to make matters worse, MacFarlane adds an unnecessary explanation into the mix as well).
Rating: 7/10 – there’s more to like here than not, but a lot will depend on your tolerance for MacFarlane’s sense of humour; not quite the edgy, smut-filled laugh-fest you might be expecting, and with a bigger heart as well, and topped off by a great cast clearly entering into the spirit of things (and we need more Westerns anyway).