Seth’s Muddled West

The western genre, when done through the medium of film, television, or literature, has produced some of the greatest stories, characters and mythologies in creative arts history. In the present day, the western and its multiple subgenres haven’t been executed as commonly as they used to.

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Present-day westerns like “Django Unchained,” and the Coen Brothers’ remake of “True Grit,” show that the genre can still be successful, but if it weren’t for them having high profile stars or a famous director, they wouldn’t be as successful with modern day audiences.

Following up the success of his hilarious live-action film debut, “Ted,” Seth MacFarlane brings his signature brand of edgy humor to “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” a purported satire of the western genre’s tropes and vast mythology. With a stellar cast and production value, it seemed that not a lot could go wrong. Unfortunately, almost everything in this film went in a direction opposite from where I wanted it to go.

In addition to co-writing the script and directing, MacFarlane headlines as Albert Stark, a sheep farmer that is dumped by his long-time girlfriend for not being man enough to participate in a duel. After going through a hapless phase, he meets Anna (Charlize Theron), who helps boost the confidence and courage he has lacked in himself for so long. Their relationship is eventually threatened when Anna’s outlaw husband, Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), rides into town seeking death to be laid upon Stark for his relationship with her.

I’m a fan of Seth MacFarlane’s humor, and it stretches further than just the earlier seasons of “Family Guy.” His hosting gigs in three Comedy Central Roasts, and the 2013 Oscars remain some of the funniest I’ve seen in recent memory. Also, his first feature-length film “Ted” was far funnier than I expected at the time.

In a surprising twist, MacFarlane makes his first mistake of casting himself in the lead for this film. His performance isn’t bad by any means, but it proves to be a major distraction from paying an equal amount of attention to his writing and directing duties. His character has one-liners that occasionally work, but the rest of his dialogue is saddled with long ramblings that build up to either a weak punchline, or one that doesn’t even exist.

Direction doesn’t fare much better, as MacFarlane can’t decide on whether or not to carry the film with a mostly comic or serious tone. His character’s romance with Anna is played out to the tunes of corny music compositions, and the dialogue between the two remains stale and familiar in every scene they have together.

The worst of this movie’s problems lie within the script, which felt so hastily written to the point that it went through only one draft. Too much of the humor is devoted to cheap, sophomoric hijinks, which include far too many fart jokes and repetitive pratfalls. At numerous points, I got the feeling that many of these moments were written because MacFarlane and his co-writers couldn’t think up any other clever way to close a scene.

All these flaws unfortunately overshadow the moments where MacFarlane shows actual effort in his attempted satirical tribute to the West. For instance, there are slick references and visual cues made in connection to famed western films like “The Searchers,” “High Noon” and “The Man with No Name” trilogy. Even the font of the opening credit titles bears a resemblance to the ones in “Blazing Saddles.”

“A Million Ways to Die in the West” had all the trimmings to be this generation’s “Blazing Saddles,” but Seth MacFarlane’s misguidance of his own material makes it backfire. A few surprise cameos in the second half put a smile on my face, but they weren’t enough to save this film that, like its lead character’s shooting skills, misses a lot more than it hits.

 

NOT RECOMMENDED: Word of advice to all: Rent “Blazing Saddles” and wait patiently for “Ted 2” to release in a few years. MacFarlane’s “A Million Ways” is one of the biggest sophomore slumps I’ve seen in a long time.