A Million Ways to Die in the West

A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014) – Directed by Seth MacFarlane – Starring Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Neil Patrick Harris, Liam Neeson, Giovanni Ribisi, Amanda Seyfried, Sarah Silverman, Wes Studi, Alex Borstein, Evan Jones, Gilbert Gottfried, Dennis Haskins, Christopher Lloyd, Bill Maher, Ewan McGregor, Jamie Foxx, Ryan Reynolds, and Patrick Stewart.

Whither, Seth MacFarlane?

Much has been made about Television Seth MacFarlane, the repetitious purveyor of one idea and one approach stretched out over multiple shows. People like to bag on MacFarlane for this, as if he is the first television producer to ever create a successful show and then cookie cutter it. Whenever you hear complaints like this targeted at MacFarlane, you can be reasonably certain the person making it either has a fundamental misunderstanding of how television works, or routinely likes to tilt at windmills. My feeling is that most of the people making the cookie cutter argument against MacFarlane are made by people who don’t like MacFarlane, and wouldn’t be any more likely to check out a new MacFarlane show if he created a whole new dynamic than if he pumped out The Family Guy, Part IV.

Or did you all tune in to DADS, every week?

Which brings us to Movie Seth MacFarlane.

While the MacFarlane movie I really want to see is a musical, A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST is a solid follow-up to TED, MacFarlane’s live-action debut from 2012. Both MILLION and TED are impressive in that they’re stories first, and comedies second. That’s not the cookie cutter approach we see from TV MacFarlane. Yes, there’s still plenty of infantile humor, body fluid humor, and racial humor, but there’s also an honest attempt here to tell a story. I said it during the TED review that I’m at a point in my life where I want my comedies to tell me a good story first, and make me laugh second.

I credit Young Frankenstein with bringing this idea home, and MILLION works as a hybrid of sorts between Young Frankenstein and another Mel Brooks’ film, Blazing Saddles. MILLION isn’t as good as either of Brooks’ movies, but MacFarlane does a good job balancing his story with his crude humor.

Throughout the film, it’s the story that most often generates the humor. Albert Stark (MacFarlane) is a cowardly sheep farmer who can’t shoot and is far more interested in talking his way out of problems than he is fighting his way out. He’s not so cowardly that he won’t show up for a duel he knows he can’t win, but when he gets there he’ll try to use humor (using shadows to make it look like his opponent is giving him a blow job). There are still scenes that go joke-first, like when Albert and Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) discuss the arrival of a large block of ice just so the film can show said ice block crushing someone’s skull, but these moments usually feed the larger trope of the American West being a horrible place to live.

Credit to MacFarlane (and his writing team), too, for giving Albert a believable arc. Nowhere in this movie does he morph into John Wayne or Clint Eastwood or even Mel Gibson in Maverick. Even when he wins the day at the end of the film, it’s due to a lot of help from Anna (Charlize Theron) and Cochise (Wes Studi), to teach him to shoot good enough and to give him a poison to make that good-enough shot to turn out deadly for the film’s more stereotypical Western bad-ass Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson).

There’s not a lot of subtlety to MacFarlane’s comedy, but MILLION does a good job taking apart the myth of the American West, a genre that has been used repeatedly as the proving ground for American manhood. Albert doesn’t see himself as a man because he’s not that mythical tough guy. He’s a sheepherder, not a gunslinger. Hell, he’s not even a cattle man or even a good sheepherder, as his sheep are constantly wandering off. Albert doesn’t see himself as worthy of his girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), and it’s clear that a large part of his identity is tied up in being her boyfriend.

After Louise breaks up with him, Anna enters Albert’s life. She’s posing as the sister of a cowboy, when in reality she’s the wife of Clinch. Anna and Albert grow together over the course of the film and it’s Anna who fills the more traditional masculine role.

The film’s humor works best for me when it’s historical, such as when Albert and Anna discuss the rumor that there was a man in Texas who had his picture taken while smiling. Anna says, “It takes like 30 seconds to take a picture – he’d go crazy smiling that long!” Or when everyone is stunned about seeing a dollar bill.

MILLION isn’t a great movie, but I did find it to be an enjoyable one. It’s breezy and foul-mouthed and it works for me because of the romantic relationship: Anna and Albert, Louise and her monied, mustached new beau, Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), and Edward and Ruth (Sarah Silverman). It’s the last relationship that gets most of the laughs, as Albert’s virginity and Ruth’s prostitution make for some good laughs. It’s not just their placement on opposite ends of the sexual spectrum that make them funny, however, as Edward’s understanding of Ruth’s profession helps to sell the relationship and provide plenty of good laughs. When Edward picks up Anna at work to take her out to spend some non-sexual time together, Ruth’s madam (Alex Borstein) reminds them that one of the locals has said he plans on coming by later to have anal sex with Ruth. Ruth is thrilled by this, as it will allow them to buy Edward a new belt for church. Edward wants to know if bringing Ruth back by 5:30 is good, but the madam (who doesn’t understand how their relationship is working so successfully) tells him, “It’s not a dentist’s office,” that they don’t have appointments, and that the client will stop by “whenever he wants to put his dick in Ruth’s ass.”

“5:30, then,” Edward smiles, and off they go.

There’s enough jokes to buttress the story, and enough story to make MILLION much more than a series of jokes stitched together. It’s not wholly successful – it’s too long, MacFarlane isn’t a great actor, it’s too long – but there’s enough here for me to have left the theater with a smile on my face. There’s an enjoyable musical number where Foy uses his mustache to make Albert feel like even less of a man than he already does, and everyone is committed to giving their role what it needs.

Maybe A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST doesn’t ever become anything more than a pleasant diversion from the hot, summer sun, but that’s enough for me. If that’s setting the bar low, so be it, but I think Film MacFarlane is doing some interesting things. Both TED and now MILLION demonstrate a filmmaker that’s much more than idiot dads and toilet humor. Whatever else MacFarlane is, in his cinematic iteration, he’s also a storyteller.