As seems obligatory when reviewing A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014), I better begin with my feelings on Seth MacFarlane. I never really watched Family Guy at all, that whole phenomenon just totally passed me by. As for Ted (2012) I was actually pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed that film. MacFarlane definitely does seem to divide opinion. Quite a few reviews of this film seem to essentially be, I hate MacFarlane, and therefore I hate this film.
If reviews of the film seem to focus quite strongly on MacFarlane, well it is not exactly a surprise. When you write, produce, direct and star in a film, you can expect a lot of credit if it is brilliant, but you best prepare for derision if it is rubbish. And A Million Ways to Die in the West is rubbish. Surprisingly though it is deeply unfunny. I was expecting a few hearty laughs even if the film itself wasn’t particularly cohesive, but next to nothing registered with me. The film makes no real attempt to combine the Western and comedy genres, outside of the opening credits. This is a comedy, vaguely set in the Ol West of John Ford. Very vaguely. There is little plot to speak of, this is all about the jokes really. There is a recurring thread through the film essentially making the point that the old west of beloved Westerns is basically the worst time and place in history. That is an idea with heaps of potential. None of which really gets mined here, save for the occasional titter at one of the titular deaths (thought those get pretty old pretty quickly too). The plot there is focuses on a love story between MacFarlane and Charlize Theron. One that the audience is all of a sudden meant to find quite genuine and affecting toward the end, but nothing in the preceding 90 minutes will make you feel that way.
I was surprised that the incredible cast (Silverman, Theron, Ribisi, Neeson, Seyfried and so on) really did not elevate the material at all. MacFarlane casts himself in the lead role and the film is poorer for it. He has shown his voice work to be serviceable in the past, but he has zero presence or weight on the screen. I know this is not Oscar baiting drama here, but if the lead cannot emote or provide any depth, then the film will struggle. But really no one is good here, even the usually always incredible Theron seems pretty disinterested and not really fussed about being involved. All of the issues with this film and any comedy really, could be at least partly forgiven if the film was funny. No such luck here, in fact the film is actively unfunny. The slapstick for example bombs terribly, yet MacFarlane persists with peppering it through the film, so he obviously thought it would come off. In the end the characters in the film start laughing at MacFarlane’s jokes, presumably in the hope that the audience would laugh along with them. Didn’t work for me though, or anyone in my screening for that matter. The script is to blame, lacking any real wit with and also any of the zaniness that made Ted bearable if inconsistent. I am pretty befuddled as to why MacFarlane would turn out such conventional rom-com dirge, but he obviously thought it would bring him a big audience. In addition to the highly conventional script, this film also looks a lot cheaper than Ted. A comedic Western must be something approaching a costume and set designer’s dream. But there is nothing particularly creative and just as with MacFarlane’s acting, there is really no weight to any of it.
A comedy Western with this cast has potential in spades. But not with this script it doesn’t. Which is a shame because it has been a lean year for comedies so far. Unfortunately though, this was such a non-event that I don’t think I could even recommend this for big fans of MacFarlane’s other work.
Verdict: Schooner of Tooheys New