Don’t let the “aw shucks” charm and disarmingly neurotic gumption of Seth MacFarlane’s Albert fool you. This writer-director-actor is as ambitious and ready to quick draw as any comedic hombre this side of the Rio Grande. Too bad his second feature A Million Ways to Die in the West is shooting mostly blanks.
There is no doubt that MacFarlane is a comic force to be reckoned with. As loud as critics may howl, there is a reason Family Guy is preparing to enter its fourteenth season. And 2012’s Ted is as hilarious as, well, a plush teddy bear dropping some f-bombs. Even his controversial Oscar hosting gig was at least memorable (something you can’t say about this year’s follow-up act). Unfortunately, the only thing you’re likely to remember about MacFarlane’s spectacularly un-blazing ride in the saddle is his Academy Award dance partner, Charlize Theron.
As Anna, the fast-shooting and fast-talking love interest who drifts into the Town of Old Stump one fateful day, Theron radiates energy and amusement at the crude underpinnings which blot MacFarlane’s hazy vision of the West far more than any dust storm. Indeed, as an intentionally modern woman born a few centuries too early, Theron’s Anna can easily win anyone’s affection by how easily she hates on everything around her. Thus it’s all the more mystifying that she doesn’t equally loathe MacFarlane’s hapless hero.
Intended to be the rough equivalent of a New York misanthrope-hipster dropped into the Old West (emphasis on the “old” in this picture), Albert spends the entire running time of A Million Ways to Die in the West trembling with fear, complaining about how stupid everyone is around him, or generally laughing at his own superiority. Unfortunately, while the actor has proven this can work in supporting parts or dual leads—even if he is embodied as a teddy bear in that situation—without a straight man to play against, MacFarlane’s charms come off as mostly smug, and the entire movie feels absent an anchoring star. There is real chemistry between him and Theron, but this Western anti-hero lacks the leading man charisma necessary for audiences to care if he gets the girl or succumbs to one of the many, many agonizing forms of demise hanging around these “simpler times.”
Indeed, as the title might suggest, there are many ways to die in this vision of the West. To name just a few; random stampeding cattle, roaming wolves in the night, bandits, cutthroats, and, my personal favorite, a literally cutthroat tumbleweed. Nearly every immolation and crushing pratfall gag lands with the requisite guffaw, but they do little to pick up the pace of a rather plodding ride that begins when Louise (Amanda Seyfried) leaves Albert for generally being a coward on his best days and a boring sheep farmer who kvetches about life on every other.
Miserable and self-pitying, Albert prepares to leave the West behind for good in favor of the bright lights of San Francisco until Anna comes into his life. Already married since the age of nine (she didn’t want to become a 15-year-old spinster!), Anna is looking to rebuild a new life in Old Stump after realizing hubby Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson) is kind of a dick. Bonded over their disdain for all other frontier idiocies, such as the selfishness of American Indians, Anna teaches Albert to shoot in order to win back Louise, and he shows her half of the ways to die in knowingly self-aware olden times by just strolling down main street’s fair grounds.
Visually, A Million Ways to Die in the West has an appealingly classical vision to it. Shot in (where else?) John Ford’s famed Monument Valley, MacFarlane shows deference for the classics of Hollywood cinema by recreating a nostalgic look for a bygone era that only ever existed on celluloid. In fact, his movie feels most alive during the sweeping sunset shots over the Valley during afternoon shooting excursions and in the midst of a third act chase when (surprise) Clinch finds out about Albert and Anna, and is none too happy with the sheep farmer. These scenes are so full of visceral joy, one cannot help but realize that MacFarlane may have secretly wanted to make a traditional Western all along. And how much better served we might have been for it. We certainly would have been spared at least three diarrhea jokes involving a man defecating into his own hat, as well as many other comedic misfires of equally juvenile wit.
Still, there was one other comic secret weapon in this movie that could have used more of a spotlight. Sadly, it is not a mostly wasted Sarah Silverman in the movie’s most unfunny subplot, which involves the actress’ brothel-living Ruth refusing to break abstinence before marriage with her fiancé. However, the laugher does at least wonderfully deploy Neil Patrick Harris as Foy, Louise’s new gentleman caller and proprietor of the town’s booming moustache salon for the more discerning and affluent suitor. Obviously, Albert’s business of sheep farming keeps him from affording the luxury of a proper moustache, a fact which Harris’ well-to-do dandy repeatedly confirms in a series of escalating humiliations that culminates in (what else?) a musical number that’d do Stephen Foster proud.
But in the end, much like the pleasures of “wrapped candies,” such enjoyments on MacFarlane’s frontier are few and fleeting. And beyond the odd death scene and two uproarious cameos that I will not give away here, this movie is ultimately as aimless as that killer tumbleweed. In A Million Ways to Die in the West, the town pastor regales of the time he killed a man in a duel and then went to that man’s home and proceeded to murder his 16-year-old son. He couched the sermon in a message about “seeing the job through.” It is thus a shame that finishing this lagging stagecoach journey to its end credits feels equally as obligatory.