Let me begin by stating that I am a huge fan of the majority of Seth MacFarlane’s work, from Family Guy to American Dad to The Cleveland Show. His special talent for pop culture referencing and outwardly base yet inwardly intelligent humour is something that appeals to me and is prevalent in all of his successful animated works. Jump to 2012 and the release of Ted, MacFarlane’s first real venture in to the world of cinema that seemed to entertain everybody except me. The live action transference of MacFarlane’s signature comedic style changed it from being irreverent and delightfully off-colour to simply awkward and offensive. Now two years have passed and the writer/director/producer is back again with A Million Ways To Die In The West, a western comedy with throw back aesthetics and twenty first century humour. I went in with reservations, would the film suffer the same fate as Ted?
The plot follows the story and struggles of Albert Stark (Seth MacFarlane), a poor sheep farmer who finds himself with a week to sharpen his shooting skills after entering in to a gun fight to try and win back his undeserving ex-girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried), who has left him for the town’s richest man Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). Albert enlists the help of Anna Barnes (Charlize Theron), the new girl in town with a big secret, and the two form a firm friendship that in classic cinema narrative fashion, turns in to something more and leaves the characters in a complicated love triangle, or square, or pentagon. The film, unfortunately, is very hit and miss with its humour. Some sequences are undeniably funny, in particular the few occasions where physical comedy is favoured over offensive dialogue that feel overly contrived and inflammatory. No more than fifteen minutes had passed when I found myself having the very same problem with A Million Ways To Die In The West as I had had with Ted, in the sense that the more risqué and offensive comedy that is so easily gotten away with in the animated universe of Family Guy becomes rather more uncomfortable and ‘real’ when applied to live action performances. All this, of course, is worsened by the fact that majority of jokes attempted throughout the narrative simply are not very funny, if at all. There are only so many times I want to hear a fart joke or a prostitute joke in a two hour time limit, and the film strays perilously close to over indulgence in this aspect. I also feel the film gets caught up in sacrificing the comedic success for conventional narrative substance. The wild western world that MacFarlane creates is one full of comedic potential, but the majority of this potential is pushed aside in order to accommodate the structure of a really rather mundane and predictable romantic plot, one that pushes the film away from less contrived aspects of the universe that the audience would like to see more of. Some of the highlights of the film include scenes that pay homage to its title, and one can’t help but feel that a looser, less defined, more irreverent exploratory comedy of the dangers of the nineteenth century west was the film that MacFarlane really wanted to make.
Seth MacFarlane, for all his creative talents, just isn’t an endearing enough actor to satisfactorily harness the film as protagonist Albert. Whilst I did not enjoy Ted as a whole, MacFarlane was doing what we all knew he can do exceptionally well, lend a humorous voice and character to an animated screen presence. He ramped his involvement up even further this time and placed himself in the centre of his live action creation, a decision which I feel is detrimental to the film. There is something sort of smug about MacFarlane’s delivery of his own lines that works to almost break the fourth wall. I have no specific complaints about the standard of his acting, but his lack of star quality, particularly when set against much more enigmatic screen presences like Charlize Theron and Liam Neeson, does become a problem as the narrative progresses. Theron as Anna Barnes is the real star of the show. She appears to have been able to act a level above the rest of the cast in terms of believability and ease of watching, and gives one of the very few performances that is actually enjoyable to witness. There are solid but ultimately unremarkable supporting performances by Amanda Seyfried, Sarah Silverman, Neil Patrick Harris and Giovanni Ribisi, none of whom bring any outstanding mirth to proceedings, though that is the fault of the script rather than the actors.
Ultimately, A Million Ways To Die In The West, whilst being better than Ted in my opinion, is still a far way off being anything like as funny as Seth MacFarlane’s television work. The fundamental fact of the matter may be that his kind of humour just does not transfer well to the big screen and live action. The film does have enjoyable moments and a handful of cameo sequences that will delight fans of Family Guy’s penchant for incorporating other established narrative universes in to its own, but these brief glimmers of enjoyment are simply not enough to save what is overall a bit of a stinker. Charlize Theron tries her best to elevate the film, but not even she can save it from being rather of a waste of time.