[Review] - A Million Ways To Die In The West

Courtesy of Fuzzy Door Productions
I had high hopes for Million Ways, Seth MacFarlane's directorial sophomore effort. The western has experienced a prolonged renaissance the last couple decades (in terms of quality, if not financial success), and no one has approached the genre with a comedy mindset since City Slickers (though comedy westerns abound in the 1970s). While I'm not the biggest fan of MacFarlane's chosen brand of humour, I did (like most, I think) find Ted surprising and genuine. Universal was clearly willing to greenlight whatever project MacFarlane pitched them next, to stay in the MacFarlane business. Unfortunately, Million Ways isn't a project anyone is going to look back on with any pride.

There is a lot going on in Million Ways, and a lot going wrong. And most of it can be traced back to what I perceived to be an awkward uncertainty about the project. The story is limited, and to fill in the obvious gaps, MacFarlane uses his usual juvenile jokes to distract from the fact that his film has no direction, only a piddling thesis, and no ability to corral the various sub plots and Western tropes that he uses to inflate the narrative. In fact, he uses every opportunity to distract from what are the increasingly glaring problems with the film, to the point where the distractions become the biggest indicator that something has gone horribly wrong.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that died at the fair.

But we'll start with what works. MacFarlane is a competent, if untested director. Ted was more a challenge considering that, as a debut he had to deal with a star who was physically invisible when filming. Here, he had the opportunity to showcase his skill with an entirely present cast and a location that it would take considerable ability to make look bad. I suspect that it is a side effect of his background in animation, but MacFarlane knows exactly how every shot of the film is meant to look. His framing, his camera motion, his use of scale, all of it betrays a visual creative mind. His choreography too, while far from the head of the pack, certainly suggests a confidence that can't be found in the works of, say, Christopher Nolan. The brawl scene and the dance sequence were the most enjoyable of the film, if only because they exuded the most elf-assurance.

Also successful is the music. Both the score by Joel McNeely and the two original songs (presumably written by MacFarlane, though I can't seem to find anywhere that verifies that) are pitch perfect to the intended genre. McNeely's score in heavily reminiscent of western of the 50s, what many might consider the golden age of the western. The overly sentimental and somewhat nostalgic tones are a great through back, but don't exactly match up with the film's intended pessimistic tone. the two songs, If You’ve Only Got a Moustache, and the title track are a greater use of MacFarlane's comedic potential, with more laughs coming from the latter than come from the film itself, and the former certainly worthy of being an anthem for the facial haired crowd.

Beyond that though, the film has major issues, and the first of which is the title. It's a solid title, and the advertising certainly seemed to be selling a premise that MacFarlane visits in the film, but can't find enough material to properly work with. Had the film remained hard-fast to the idea of exploring the treacherous conditions of the old west, it almost certainly would have taken on more of a vignette style, but would have been a far more successful expression of MacFarlane's comedic talents. This film straddles a line between Ted's linear storytelling and Family Guy's scatter shot cutaways. Had it stuck with one or the other, it would have been far better off. Ted had a bizarre concept at it's core, but it never strayed from that concept. Million Ways sets up an idea, and abandons it.

Once MacFarlane shrugs off the thesis of his picture, giving the title an artifact feel, he tries to generate a romantic comedy, juxtaposing modern behaviours and reactions with the period. Again, he fails utter to stick to the idea. Had he presented Albert as the one sane man, a man of the modern world stuck in the company of the oblivious, it would have heightened the comedic potential. Or, had Albert been a man of his world completely, and allowed the audience's modern reactions to the archaic and insane to produce the comedy, then maybe that would have worked. As it stands, it's a hodge podge of presentations, with Albert at times seemingly like a time traveler trapped in a primitive world (which would have been a more successful idea for a film then what we got here), and other times just as complacent as the rest of the characters, all of whom are as one dimensional as they could possibly be and still have screen time.

The story, as it exists, is underdeveloped. Albert and Anna's friendship and courtship is the only thing that approaches having nuance, which is to say it is still aggressively cliched. And despite the fact that Albert is shown to be nothing short of the biggest coward in the west, and Anna surpasses him in nearly every available capacity, the film frustratingly falls back on tired sex roles. Albert also manages to survive three gun fights and pretty much bumble his way to success in every other situations. Instead of being subversive and interesting, it all just seems lazy. Lazier still is the overlapping subplots that don't really go anywhere. The main crux of the story is Albert's attempts to win back Louise (Amanda Seyfried) from Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). This gets resolved pretty quickly, only to be replaced by Liam Neeson. The reasons for Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman's presence in the film still escapes me, since they lend nothing to the film other that a directionless opportunity to be vulgar.

Don't get me wrong, when done well, vulgar can be funny as hell. I would point to Archer for an example of vulgar done well. This isn't that. There are glimpses of a comedy that is smart, subversive and funny. Some lines betray a better nature. But it almost always falls back on the easy, the juvenile and the extreme. It is out of place, even within scenes, like when poor Patrick Harris has to shit in a hat: the bit goes nowhere. It informs nothing. The rest of the characters stare on in silence, than move on to the next bit of dialogue. It's worse than the improve, line-o-rama style that has overtaken comedies, because at least they illicit a reaction, if not a purpose. This stuff, silhouettes fellating each other, just sits in the middle of the screen like a dead possum.

The film is overly long, and deserves a more aggressive edit. Even in that regard, MacFarlane is let down, with some jokes cutting away too soon, and others lingering long past their expiry date. But still, it needs to be trimmed of a good thirty minutes, at least. You get the feeling that a decent enough rearrangement of the elements might produce a cut that is truer to the either the thesis or the primary story line. A cut that eliminates the unnecessary, tightens up the narrative, and produces a film with a measure of merit. As it stands, it is at best a wasted opportunity.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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