Deadly jokes certainly dog this latest bit of ridiculous raunch from the Hollywood whiz kid, who falls flat on his face many times over the course of the film: On the main drag of the frontier town of Old Stump. Eating the dust of the Arizona plains where the film is set. On the sheep farm he runs — and, at times, under the sheep, or more specifically under peeing sheep. And in one comedy riff after another.
MacFarlane is a very funny dude, and there are times "A Million Ways to Die" is indeed funny. But too often the movie feels half-baked. It's as if the troika behind the surprisingly satisfying satire of 2012's trash-talking plush bear
The filmmaker is lucky to have such a swell cast, one game for the various humiliations visited upon them to get those laughs. Led by Oscar-winning actress
Anna blows into Old Stump seeming like a single girl, but in truth she's married to notorious gunslinger Clinch (
Basically the movie is structured into a series of
That idea extends to the central comic conceits of the film — a mash-up of 21st century sensibilities with Old West clichés. For example Albert can't shoot, but he is good at math. Sometimes it works — as it does with Louise's breakup line about needing some time to "work" on herself. Other times, it fails. When a band of Native Americans labels him a "nerd," it barely merits a chuckle.
The deeper problem is the way the director uses political incorrectness like a blunt instrument. Mocking convention, religion, ethnicities, etc., is a long comic tradition and, well done, it can provide insight and laughs. But the pejorative way "West" floats the references is problematic rather than provocative.
Case in point: A running joke involving Edward (
Like many others, I'm a fan of MacFarlane's "Family Guy" — and MacFarlane in "Family Guy." In addition to creating the popular Fox animated series, he does an excellent job voicing many of the characters, particularly Stewie, the terrific enfant terrible.
But on camera is another story. MacFarlane's scenes play very much like his appearances on talk shows, a smart, funny guy with an slightly goofy grin, though a few moments in "West" edge closer to his 2013 gig hosting the
Acting is something else entirely. The difference becomes clear the more time MacFarlane is opposite Theron, who as we all know is quite good at it. Those scenes are his best, but they also illustrate the divide between those who can and those who perhaps need to work at it longer before they make themselves the star of another movie.
If MacFarlane wants to be a serious filmmaker, or actor, or both, he's going to have to get serious about the craft — from how the movie is pieced together to whether it makes sense. There is an internal logic to even the grandest farce.
Unfortunately, there are so many times that "A Million Ways to Die in the West" reminds me of another death MacFarlane had a hand it. In Season 12 of "Family Guy" last year, the creative team killed the beloved and brilliant "Family" dog Brian, also voiced by MacFarlane. Of all the lofty reasons given in the turbulent aftermath of that decision, I suspect it was something much simpler — the series needed a shake-up and killing Brian offered the chance to title the episode
Television is a more forgiving medium. When fan outrage hit extreme levels, the "Family Guy" writers simply resurrected Brian a few episodes later. There will be no such chance for "West." Oh, and of the million ways to die in the West, it turns out a comedy misfire is the deadliest of all.
'A Million Ways to Die in the West'
MPAA rating: R for strong crude and sexual content, language throughout, some violence and drug material
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes