A Million Ways to Die in the West
Starring Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Sarah Silverman, Giovanni Ribisi and Liam Neeson
Directed by Seth MacFarlane
From Universal Pictures
Laughs, deaths about equal in MacFarlane western
by Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume
Filling in the long-dormant void of absurdist cowboy humor left by Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, Seth MacFarlane’s equally batty A Million Ways to Die in the West goes far at convincing us Saddles’ unchallenged dominance might be ready for a toppling. Just not quite far enough with this lesser, though still amusingly irreverent, western.
If anything, MacFarlane — the star, writer and director — restrains himself. If you recall, Blazing Saddles ended when the cowboys spilled out of the picture and into adjacent movies. A Million Ways to Die in the West seems poised for a similar feat, but then it reins back its galloping absurdity even as Neil Patrick Harris, mid-duel, fills a ten-gallon hat with 12 gallons of you’d-rather-not-know.
The Family Guy and Ted creator is a curious actor. He enters the Old west scenery as an oddity: suspenders, vest, impeccably smooth plastic-like skin, an anime-like tuft of hair above his forehead. He looks like he’s headed to an audition for Pinocchio, not The Searchers. And then that voice — it booms like he’s about to advertise for American-made pickup trucks.
MacFarlane plays Albert, a sheepherder with some confidence issues. In the opening moments he loses his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) because he’s perceived as weak and not manly enough for the West. This is the mantra of the movie: the Old West is so dangerous that literally anything can kill you. And if it doesn’t kill you — perhaps just wounds or maims — then the doctor will finish you off with his bizarre frontier treatments. We meet the doctor later when he lets a bluejay peck at an open wound on Albert’s face.
Albert isn’t a coward. He just values life, which is why he doesn’t take any risks, although he does have a few too many drinks in the saloon and then tries to ride home — “Don’t drink and horse,” his friends warn him. Later, Albert goes to the town fair, where an escaped bull skewers a man like a hot dog over a roasting fire. “People die at the fair,” he confirms to himself after a photographer’s flash lamp explodes, igniting the photographer and his two subjects. Two nearby cowpunchers “put out” the fire by shooting the burning victims. Yeah, people die at the fair.
The beautiful part of this deadly motif is that it allows MacFarlane to dredge up every western cliché, if only to lampoon it to the bar in his cynical tone and style. Gunfights, whorehouses, snakebites, horses, saloons, sheriffs, preachers, American Indians … if it’s been in a western then it’s desecrated here with MacFarlane’s vitriolic wit. Some of the jokes crack like thunder, including one where a man pulls out a dollar bill and the gathered townspeople bow their heads out of respect to a denomination they have not been privileged to see in the flesh. “Take your hat off, boy, that’s a dollar bill,” a father yells at his son.
Other jokes land with thuds, including a scene with a pot-laced cookie, Islamic death chants, a sheep with “retardation,” and an unfortunate line about women and the size of their butts in frontier fashion. White guys opening jokes with “If I were a black guy I would …” rarely goes well. Racial humor comes up several times, including at the fair where Albert plays a game called Runaway Slaves, with century-old imagery that is still shocking today. The arcade game turns up in the post-credit sequence with some vindication, but it’s a risky joke that almost derails the West’s forward momentum.
The movie is all fun and games until Clinch (Liam Neeson) and his posse ride into town with the intention of killing and robbing before moving onto the next town. Little humor is written into this villain, which is such a shame considering that Neeson, with that classical cowboy face, seems like a sport for MacFarlane’s twisted sense of humor. Charlize Theron plays Anna, Clinch’s wife and Albert’s new love interest. Theron’s Anna is written some jokes, but Clinch is not — he’s a completely serious character in an otherwise wacky movie. It’s very strange.
Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman play a deeply religious couple in the middle of a very chaste courtship, even though she plays a rather accomplished prostitute who has sex with “10 men … on a slow day” but won’t go all the way with her man because God forbids it. Silverman is appropriately foul mouthed, and Ribisi feigns timid embarrassment — they are hilarious performances. Neil Patrick Harris plays a man who works in the town’s Mustachery; he has a largely perfect song and dance number about facial hair. The film has many fart jokes, including four in the first 20 minutes, but Harris will out-gross everything late in the movie with his painful hat maneuver. Keep your eyes open for many cameos, including Ryan Reynolds, Ewan McGregor, Gilbert Gottfried, Bill Maher, Wes Studi and Christopher Lloyd pulling a John-Hurt-in-Spaceballs appearance.
As rewarding as this western-themed comedy is, A Million Ways to Die in the West could have gotten away with so much more. The rambunctious farce, a horse hair shy of an outright spoof, should have went bonkers, yet came up a day late, but not — hats off — a dollar short.