Death is not funny. Or at least that’s what “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is trying to counter argue. Let me start by saying that I love dark humor and not a prude that thinks all comedy should be slapstick and pies. I’m welcome to all kinds of comedy be it stupid or sophisticated. But the bottom line is that it has be funny or at least chuckle worthy. I’d go into a history lecture on how comedy must have weight and support to give it a solid punchline but I feel this unfunny, mean-spirited and bloated Seth MacFarlane romp is a fitting example of how not to do a comedy. I went into this movie thinking it wasn’t going to be that bad, however I found myself feeling it was worse than I originally thought it would turn out to be.
Seth not only writes and directs but also stars as the protagonist Albert Stark who lives in a dust hole of a western town that is plagued with cowboy cut-outs, sleazy prostitutes and people dying at the drop of a hat. He’s also a cowardly sheep farmer that has no control over his rampant flock as much as his courage when it comes to a pistol duel. On top of that, his girlfriend thinks he’s such a wimp to the point she runs off with Foy (a twisted mustached Neil Patrick Harris.) To win back her heart, he challenges Foy to a duel and with the help of another gunslinger named Anna (Charlize Theron) Albert trains as good as he can to see he can crack a good shot.
It sounds fine at first until you start to add on the other subplots and story lines that could have been so easily trimmed out but make “Million Ways” unnecessarily bloated. Giovanni Ribisi plays a friend of Albert’s that has a prostitute for a girlfriend (Sarah Silverman) which amounts to nothing but a running joke about how he is a virgin and yet his girl is serving hard customers with her own body. Even unneeded is Liam Neeson as an infamous outlaw that feels more like an extended cameo than as opposed to an actual villain. Apparently, he is Anna’s husband and when he finds out she’s been around Albert, he doesn’t hold back and plans to tear the town to shreds until the sheep header challenges him. In fact, if you cut all of Liam’s scenes you wouldn’t be missing much. When it reaches the 90 minute mark, you think its over but no! They have to add on this pointless plot which didn’t have much of a progression.
The biggest problem I feel with this movie is the character of Albert. He’s annoying and not that interesting. In fact, if you just animated Brain the dog from Family Guy, there wouldn’t be much of a difference between the two characters as they share similar traits. They are losers trying to make out of a dull environment while point out constantly to their friends what is bad about the place they are living in. When Seth was on screen, I didn’t see another character. I kept seeing Brian Griffin. At least Ted worked because Seth’s performance was a voice and the technical work of bring a foul-mouthed teddy bear to live meshed well. Here, he can’t carry the torch of being a leading man and it shows. Once in a while, there can be a nice scene between him and Charlize Theron, but its very fluffed in my opinion. I can see someone like Steve Buscemi or Chris Pine doing the role of a weaselly wimp better but having Seth be the straight man just feels self-absorbed to me.
But hey, maybe the jokes can clear that up? After all, humor is a driving force in comedy as plot is cared little of. That would be the case if there were some actual jokes here. The entire theme of “Million Ways” is that living in the west sucks and that’s all it amounts to. I understand that but the way its delivering these jokes make it unfunny. Characters keep explaining the punchline instead of letting us laugh while they keep repeating previous gags on a repetitive nature. One example is the joke where a man gets his head crushed by a block of ice. The gory execution along makes it horrible but then we cut to the man’s funeral where the reverend mentions how they will fondly have icy drinks in his memory. To which Albert says, “I can’t believe they are using the ice that killed him.” We get the punchline. You don’t have to go out and explain the joke to us. We are not little children. This makes Dumb and Dumber To look sophisticated because at least the Farrelly Brothers knew when to limit themselves. Even a tasteless shooting gallery joke at the fair with cartoon images of African Americans as the targets cement the desperation here. And as more bodies drop at the tip of a hat, so does our sense of humor. Bystanders fall dead, a corpse gets eaten by wolves and patrons get shot at so frequently that it becomes borderline unbarring to sit through.
I only remember three good jokes that I legitimately laughed at and those three I’m taking with me. One is a joke about currency in the West as a one dollar bill was different back then and two flashback scenes that had a decent payoff. One of them involving a Gilbert Gottfried cameo where he plays Abraham Lincoln that I admit got a good laugh out of me. Compared to the surreal idea of Gilbert being a log cabin President, other cameos like Christopher Lloyd reprising his Doc Brown feel really forced and pointless. I remember Brad Jones and a friend of his talking about this movie in a vlog and mentioning how it would have been funnier if the events of Back to the Future Part III unfolded in this movie. Heck, there’s even a scene when Seth’s character gets away on a train from the bad guys. Wouldn’t it be funnier if it cut to an image of the DeLorean in front of the train right after Liam says “That train will be back” seeing we know what happened to the train at the end of BTTF 3? And that’s just an idea of how much potential is lost here.
My only argument is that Seth is trying to do what Blazing Saddles did for Westerns. But at least Mel Brooks avoided repetition of saying “living in the west sucks” by giving us a commentary on racism and having characters with a dimension that feel like they were taken out of a western. In a way, “Million Ways” tries to be something akin but tries to do a modern spin which feels out of place. Blazing Saddles was funnier in comparison because it took the period piece setting and really satirized how problematic it was compared to our modern life. Seth’s film is just one joke that is said again and again to the point you would rather dip your head in a bucket of piranhas or spontaneously burst into flames. Because at least that is far more interesting than this dull gulch desert of a picture.