Immediately following the screening of A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST, I met a fellow cinefreak for a drink. We fell into a discussion about how we judge and critique films; do you hold one “bar” for all films regardless of their nature, budget, genre etc? Or, rather, do you have a sliding scale? I have trouble putting ANCHORMAN 2 up against the likes of THE DEPARTED. With all due respect to each of our methods and madness, it just doesn’t seem fair to me. I also feel that comedy is the hardest genre to judge as humor is as personal as one’s preferred toilet paper, and just as contentious a subject. That being said, A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST is absolutely freaking hilarious. Having been begrudgingly cajoled into Seth MacFarlane’s last film TED been very pleasantly surprised, I am happy to report that his sophomore feature length film shows that his wit has grown and, although it is still reliably filled with frat-boy sexual/poop humor, actually possesses some astute and strong social commentary which could fly right over some viewer’s heads. One of the skills MacFarlane demonstrates is an engaging duality; He wholeheartedly honors the western genre with all its props and scenarios but has his characters speak in 21st century hipster vernacular. It’s an idea which could have gone horribly wrong but it works and it’s funny. There is slapstick inside smart dry socio-political quipping. His is an old west parody with big splashes of BLAZING SADDLES “schtick,” Woody Allen’s neuroses, and even a nod to RAISING ARIZONA with an actor who is a dead ringer for Randall “Tex” Cobb (Evan Jones). While those influences are fairly obvious MacFarlane makes it his own with rapid fire one-liners and well crafted circular references to earlier bits without running them into the ground.
Seth MacFarlane, who wrote, directed and stars in the film, is perfectly at home with his quick delivery and cadence, and Charlize Theron holds her own as his beautiful ‘straight man’ and love interest. You can see an authenticity in their easy comfortable banter. For some reason MacFarlane doesn’t ‘look’ old west to me – he is too thoroughly modern a man to be in the setting and that just further underscores the inherent hilarity of the concept. It is however Neil Patrick Harris who steals the show with his outstanding comedic timing and well balanced blend of macho dandy with a splash of perverted metrosexual. In contrast to MacFarlane, Neil Patrick Harris looks the part and has the ability to make us laugh with just the raise of an eyebrow or well placed smirk. Amanda Seyfried does a solid job with a simple role and Liam Neeson is a fine villain. Giovanni Ribisi has now perfected his persona of clueless innocent mixed with total freak which only he can pull off and I love it. And I don’t really need to further elaborate on Sarah Silverman as a whore named Ruth who wears a gold cross and won’t have pre-marital sex with her boyfriend (Ribisi). The mere concept is too funny. This film is not about the acting per se. While we want the characters to be believable it’s a farce so how much do we really need to believe them to begin with?
As far as summer blockbusters go this one has most of the necessary winning requirements and even throws in some pre-requisite CGI when you least expect it. I will not go so far as to say that the scenario which provides MacFarlane’s character Albert with his ‘AHA!’ moment for the film’s denouement is particularly novel, but it is far better than the it-was-all-a-dream or he’s-actually-a-dead-guy-too trick. While the film hurls a lot at you and is packed to the brim with sight gags as well as its warp speed repartee it manages to pull it all off with a good steady flow. The casting is creative and it’s great to see Wes Studi flex his comedy muscles. While the scenic splendor of the opening credits is beautiful and huge in scope (almost to a fault) you won’t find any cinematography breakthroughs in A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST. But who cares? It’s audacious, dirty and a hell of a good time. Just what a summer movie should be.
Director: Seth MacFarlane
Starring: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Neil Patrick Harris, Amanda Seyfried, Sarah Silverman, Giovanni Ribisi
Running Time: 116 minutes
Movie Review A Million Ways to Die in the West