It seems too easy, for a film with so much toilet humor, to label it a pile of dung. So let’s say instead say that A Million Ways to Die in the West is a resoundingly bad film that seems almost hellbent on removing any element that might actually be entertaining. The concept is great – set in a deliberately anachronistic American West in which the plot and setting are 1882 and the language and sex jokes are 2014, this could have been an engaging romp in which the tension between the elements cast humorous illumination on the conventions of both time periods and on the Western genre as a whole. And in a summer market saturated with tentpole action films and sci-fi franchises, a Western film promised a breath of fresh air.
Alas, MacFarlane reaches for a genre spoof in the line of Blazing Saddles or Airplanes!, and is unable to deliver on any aspect of it.
Albert (Seth MacFarlane) is a sheep farmer with a pretty, pouty girlfriend (Amanda Seyfriend) and a serious lack of self-confidence. The latter takes a further blow when his girlfriend dumps him in the first five minutes for mustachioed store owner Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). After getting wildly drunk with his friends Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and Ruth (Sarah Silverman as a brothel-working prostitute), Albert meet-cutes the new girl in town, Anna (Charlize Theron). From there, the film loops slowly around Albert’s attempts to grow up and be a man (as coached by Anna), Edward and Ruth’s relationship drama, and the menace posed by famous gunslinger Cinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson).
The pacing is – there’s no other word for it – bizzare. MacFarlane often uses cutaways in Family Guy, and some are evidenced here, but mostly there’s just a lot of slow, awkward transitions between scenes, and puzzling dead spots in which there is no action and the music dies as the camera transitions. The plot also feels stretched – it would have worked perfectly for an hour-long movie, but there’s simply not enough meat to the story to fill out two hours. After a lot of unamusing hijinks and every-other-minute scatological jokes, the plot’s climax is Albert confronting his two romantic rivals, and while there’s some satisfaction to be gained in seeing him step into manhood (or perhaps more accurately adulthood), it’s not exactly the riotous guns-blazing comedy-action the trailer led us to expect.
The Albert/Anna romance is the center of the film and while simplistic provides the most cohesive note. It’s cute but not completely engaging, mainly because Theron and MacFarlane have the inescapable vibe of good friends rather than romantic interests (perhaps their real-life friendship spilling through). Theron has more chemistry with Neeson – who plays her abusive husband – than she does with MacFarlane. Nevertheless it is enjoyable to see a rare feminist role reversal in the film – Albert is the hapless, helpless one while Anna is the bold, skilled one who teaches him important skills. The romantic montage required of every onscreen romance is refreshing in that way.
Toilet humor isn’t funny just because its scatalogical – its humor is dependent on situation and delivery. Sarah Silverman’s brassy, vulgar-tongued, good-hearted brothel worker is a breath of fresh air in the film, mostly because she’s down-to-earth and appears to be the only one actually enjoying herself. Most of the funny and surprising lines go to her, and it occurred to me halfway through the film that I would have been perfectly happy to trade in Albert and Anna for a story about her hijinks with her paramour Edward.
Boring, unfunny, and poorly directed, this is the opposite of a film that’s enjoyably bad – it’s just wall-to-wall bad.
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