Here’s the central gag of Seth MacFarlane’s sophomore feature “A Million Ways to Die in the West”: there are a lot of ways to die in the Old West, and most of them are pretty terrible. Get it? It’s right there in the title! How could you not get it? Funny, right? And obvious and overlong and not clever? Now you might have some idea of what you’re dealing with when it comes to “Million Ways,” a relentlessly unfunny and charmless send-up of better films with better ideas. Who would have ever suspected that MacFarlane’s foul-mouthed teddy bear movie would be the high water mark of his short film career?
MacFarlane’s first mistake was casting himself as the lead in the feature – while “Ted” had the star power of Mark Wahlberg to drive its wacky premise, “Million Ways” is entirely the Seth MacFarlane show (he also directed, co-wrote, and co-produced the film), and it feels that way from every single frame, because while MacFarlane is not a bad actor, he’s so amused by and invested in his own material that he can barely deliver a line or a joke without smirking it up at his own cleverness. It’s too bad that the film isn’t clever, and MacFarlane’s interest and pride in his own sense of humor can’t bolster his film. (Basically, MacFarlane thinks this whole thing is funny, but that seeming mirth isn’t shared by the audience with the material at hand.)
MacFarlane stars as idiot sheep farmer Albert Stark (Albert is a notoriously bad sheep farmer, but it’s unclear if the fact that his property doesn’t contain a foot of fence is meant as a visual gag or was simply overlooked by the production at large) who just can’t win. His girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried, who handily strikes the chord right between “bitchy” and “mysterious” as the sniffy schoolmarm) has just dumped him for a preening moustache stylist (Neil Patrick Harris, still trying to shed his “How I Met Your Mother” persona with little success). His parents don’t respect him. His best pals have problems of their own. And living in the West really, really sucks.
(Did you get that joke yet? That living in the West is bad and dangerous? Don’t worry, you will, probably thanks to one of the film’s many gory and outlandish death scenes. By the time “Million Ways” wraps up, you’ll be happy that you don’t live in the West and that you don’t ever have to see this film again.)
Before that, however, there’s a plot to be addressed and all kinds of unfunny and bizarre situations to wade through. Albert, a loser through and through, finally sees his luck turning around with the arrival of a mysterious stranger, the dazzling Anna (Charlize Theron, cheery and fun), who takes the hapless Albert under her glamorous wing and aids his attempts at winning the sour Louise back. Albert, too dull and dumb to realize that Anna is a much better catch than Louise, goes along with the plan, which is actually a good idea, as Anna is secretly the wife of the most vicious gunslinger in the West, Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson, sneering), and she’s hiding out until he finishes his next nefarious job. Surely that won’t be a problem.
Despite its Old West setting and increasingly boring jokes about life on the frontier, MacFarlane doesn’t seem to be actually interested in the types of films he’s apparently satirizing with “Million Ways.” This is not a bad take on “Blazing Saddles,” this is a bad understanding of “Blazing Saddles,” and it wouldn’t shock if MacFarlane or his co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild admitted that they didn’t bother to do any Western film rewatches before attempting to take on the genre.
The jokes of “Million Ways” are not particularly clever or inventive (and these jokes announce themselves loud and clear, there might as well be a giant neon sign that lights on screen that screams “HERE COMES A JOKE”) and the majority of the film’s gags are surprisingly generalized, as little of the film actually has much to do with the Old West at all, and MacFarlane seems only interested in his setting so far as he can make fun of it. Many of the longer-form jokes scan as bad stand-up routines, and when Albert starts reeling off the things he hates about his life, it’s frighteningly easy to imagine that MacFarlane and company adapted these jokes from a drunken rant delivered among friends.
“Million Ways” may be frequently uninspired when it comes to its most obvious jokes, but that’s not the only crime it commits when it comes to its flaccid humor – the film is also rife with rigorously unfunny scatological humor, cracks about characters’ race and religion, and enough digs about co-star Sarah Silverman’s career as a whore to satisfy even the most perverse members of its audience. The film is laden (and leaden) with low-level celebrity cameos, most of which don’t make a lick of sense and the best of which has already been spoiled in a number of TV spots for the film.
MacFarlane’s work as a comedic tastemaker is a proven quantity – his “Family Guy” remains successful and beloved, he even got to host the Oscars one year – and no matter how bad and unfunny “A Million Ways to Die in the West” may be, this is not a career-ender by any stretch of the imagination. But that might be MacFarlane’s biggest problem – he needs to stretch his imagination and humor and creativity far beyond what “Million Ways” has to offer in order to grow as a comedian and a talent. “Million Ways” does not provide anything in the way of growth, and it’s an unwatchable reminder of what happens when an uninspired gag is let loose (on the prairie, in the Old West, which sucks).