So, A Million Ways To Die In The West. Not as funny as Ted, but with more funny bits than just the trailer. Chances are that’s not going to make the film’s poster quotes. I’ll leave that to Bella magazine. Although a film having a major press screening two days before its cinema release might just be on the lookout for anything it can get its hands on. Maybe I shouldn’t write myself off too soon.
Likewise, anyone looking to write off A Million Ways To Die In The West shouldn’t rush into judgement. It’s crude, a little too long, and suffers simply by being a comedy western in a world graced by Blazing Saddles and City Slickers.
Like City Slickers, MacFarlane’s second feature as director takes its leading man’s modern persona outside its comfort zone. A cultural reference comedian thrust into a landscape that robs him of those comedic opportunities. How will he cope?
Pretty well, as it happens. Strip away all the 80s movie references, and Ted was really a comedy built on the incongruity of foul-mouthed, Boston-accented rants emanating from a cute teddy bear. A Million Ways finds its best moments by mining the same territory. MacFarlane’s Albert, a western hero who neither belongs in the Wild West nor does anything that heroic, is essentially ‘Seth MacFarlane: Oscar host’; an observational comedian pointing out the ridiculousness of his surroundings.
That juxtaposition is the driving force behind many of A Million Ways’ stand-out moments. Easy toilet gags often morph into something smarter, a crude punchline that’s actually a set-up for a much better punchline.
Great MacFarlane scenes are like runaway trains. Where most writers would bail out after a few laughs, he just keeps going. Cruder, more outrageous, funnier. There’s no stopping them. Think of the drug-fuelled house party scene in Ted. Where A Million Ways falls down is in not having enough runaway trains.
For a film littered with surprisingly lurid violence and a generous dose of profanity, MacFarlane plays it safer than you might expect. The edginess that characterised Family Guy’s best episodes has been watered down, forced to share space with the conventions of a mainstream comedy film. Naturally, the two don’t always make for the best of friends, the conventional winning out more often than you’d expect.
Yet when that convention comes with a supporting cast of A Million Ways’ calibre, it’s still a cut above what most non-Apatow comedies can muster. Charlize Theron matches MacFarlane’s man-out-of-time shtick, playing the subtle yang to his exasperated, occasionally overblown yin. Sarah Silverman does a fine job playing Sarah Silverman. Liam Neeson gets to rasp a little bit more, although it’s hard to watch him now and not think of his ingenious ‘good cop, bad cop’ from The Lego Movie.
And there are cameos! You know, famous actors glimpsed in fleeting moments. Maybe too many, and too few of them rising above the level of comedy you’d expect to find in a Epic Movie style flick, where simply referencing a film is deemed anarchic enough. At times it seems like MacFarlane is holding himself in check, as if worried that being too outrageous might detract from the film’s romantic sub-plot. And yet the two aren’t mutually exclusive when they’re each done right.
So A Million Ways To Die In The West is a film that seems content to take the middle road. A film with sharp wit too often dulled. Sure, it’s not consistently funny enough to garner the same affection as Ted, but that’s a hefty benchmark to measure it against. Leave those preconceptions at the door and it has more than enough laughs, smarts, and knowing winks to keep you entertained. With the best drug-trip sequence since The Simpsons thrown in for good measure.
A Million Ways To Die In The West is out on Friday 30th May in the UK.
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