There are different types of bad films. There’s just straight up boring types, that don’t engage on any dramatic level or even as a cheesy ‘leave your brain at the door’ level, like Pompeii. Sometimes films just don’t reach their potential, like Prometheus. Films can even fail technically and it is that which makes them bad (an extreme example would be something like The Room). A Million Ways to Die in the West is a different type of bad to all these. It shows promise, but ultimately falls short at almost every hurdle. As a comedy, it is simply not funny. MacFarlane relies on gross out humour, celebrity cameos (the Ryan Reynolds one is the most obnoxious thing you’ll see this year) and milking jokes for all they’re worth. This sort of humour does not sit well with me; it’s not that I simply find it unfunny, I just find it lazy and there is nothing worse than laziness in comedy. Comedy is difficult to pull off, it takes craft and precision. Throwing everything at the wall and hoping some of it sticks simply isn’t as satisfying as its polar opposite. During the whole film I laughed once, well I say laughed, it was more of a subdued snigger and throughout the rest of the film I was dead silent. Not a great sign for a comedy.
I’m not at all saying I found MacFarlane’s humour thoroughly offensive, a common criticism levelled at him, but it was disappointing more than anything. There was one bit, but we’ll get to that in due course. A Million Ways has an interesting premise and lot of promising ideas but the development of those ideas is so shoddy and poor. Comically, MacFarlane always seems to take the low road so if you like immature sex jokes, race jokes and toilet humour, then please laugh away but I just think he can do so much better than that.
A major way in which the film falls down is that it is structurally compromised. The story is a complete mess and doesn’t have a clue where it wants go. Is it a western? Is it a comedy? Is it a romance? Is it a self-aggrandizing project for Seth? It is continually stuck between these questions and fleets back and forth. There is, however, nothing fundamentally wrong with generic superfluity, just look at how well Django Unchained worked, despite essentially being an action/comedy/revenge story about slavery. Tarantino is one of the best directors working today who knows how to make films work like that. MacFarlane unfortunately doesn’t.
The love triangle plot is so predictable that one would expect some sort of subversion for comic effect, but not really. Everything plays out exactly how you would expect. The plot doesn’t really hang together as well, scenes are only tangibly connected and thus the films ends up appearing like a series of sketches or skits. Which is fine for a 30 minute TV shows, but for a film that is nearly 2 hours long it is a huge drain. I believe that comedy should be tight and regimented, especially in films. It seems to be a mainly American pastime to make comedy films improvisational to a degree. Scenes go on for a long time, and tell jokes that are well beyond their sell-by date. In a long form comedy piece, such as this, I expect jokes to be developed so that when they come back they mean something else – I’m not asking too much, am I?
For example, there’s a running gag about a married couple who have yet to have sex, but the woman (played by Sarah Silverman) is a prostitute and therefore has lots of it. The joke arises from mainly her apprehension about doing the deed, so to speak. And that’s it. These two are supposedly minor characters that are given pretty substantial screen time. Furthermore, the joke never develops beyond that point and simply seems like an excuse to use naughty words.
There’s also another joke (one of the few) about how at the time people never smiled in photographs because exposure took so long, a fair and mildly amusing observation. The joke comes back again and again, but always as merely observation, never expanded to anything more. Sometimes it’s not that the premise of the jokes is bad, it’s that it is consistently over generous with its editing.
Indeed, the title “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is a pretty apt observation but it gets old quickly and, crucially, is not developed. In fact, I would’ve enjoyed a final shootout where the antagonists die in a ‘million’ different, but accidental ways. That would’ve been the absurdist humour that MacFarlane was searching for. Instead it tries to end on a linguistic punchline, rather than a physical one.
The characterisation is also poor. Liam Neeson’s bad guy (I can’t even remember his name, or be bothered to look it up so what does that say?) is woefully underwritten. He’s bad guy because…he does bad things because…he’s the bad guy… See the dilemma? The only half-decently written character is MacFarlane’s character, which is a surprise. And even then his character is just perfect; he’s nice, “funny”, a little bit of a dweeb and selfless. In fact I’d say Seth himself is miscast in this role, what it requires is a more Woody Allen type actor. Owen Wilson springs to mind as he did a great job in Midnight in Paris in that role. But what I’m certain of is that MacFarlane does not play this character well.
A Million Ways occasionally shows signs of promise that it could turn into a good film. It has the look of a solid, well-crafted piece of cinema. Some of the landscape shots are really nice, I mean, it’s hard to make Monument Valley not look nice. The soundtrack is decently pleasant as well. The problem is that the awful script completely lets everything down. Besides, in the comedy western genre, it is up against very tough opponents such as Blazing Saddles. When that has racist jokes, it makes them into a thematic core and actually has something to say about racism itself whereas A Million Ways just uses them as off-hand jokes. There’s a scene where Charlize Theron has a sort of cage to make her bum look big (fashion at the time) and MacFarlane’s character says something along the lines of “If I was a black guy, I’d be going crazy right now” which is simply racist. We’re not supposed to laughing at MacFarlane’s character for saying such offensive and anachronistic things, we’re supposed to side with him and that’s when dialogue steps into the racist category. I think that someone in that era would have no problem using the N-Word, but MacFarlane is supposed be a twenty first century person dropped into the Old West; so why is he saying these things? Besides, it’s so excruciatingly unfunny anyway. A metaphor for the film at large when you think about it.
Without doubt the worst film I’ve seen all year. Even if all the racist/sexist jokes don’t offend you, its dullness certainly will. I hope you gave it a miss in the cinemas and hope even more that you avoid its DVD release entirely as well.