When it comes to love it or hate it opinions of comedy, there is really no comedian riding that line more right now than Seth MacFarlane. Whether it is due to his give-a-damn attitude, his insult heavy brand of delivery, or just that smug look he generally wears on his 60’s crooner-style face: people are divided. Long known for his behind-the-scenes writing and voicing of Family Guy and the titular Ted, MacFarlane decided to push the critics to the side and finally go for broke making a movie that is not about cartoon imbeciles or foul-mouthed teddy bears. This time, the foul-mouthed imbecile is all Seth MacFarlane himself.
A Million Ways to Die in the West pulls him from the recesses of voice work and puts MarFarlane front and center as the lead character of Albert, a cowardly sheep farmer in 1882 Arizona. After his long-time love, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), dumps Albert for tucking his head one too many times, he embarks on a personal journey to either man-up and win back his girl or leave his tiny town forever.
Into his life walks Anna (Charlize Theron), estranged wife of notorious murderer and thief Clinch (Liam Neeson). Recognizing that Albert may just be the type of man she has never had the chance to know, she offers to assist Seth…ahem, Albert…with his heroic quest for testosterone. Of course guns fire and jokes fly until Albert will ultimately have to duel it out at high noon with Clinch in order to win the girl and get the yellow off his back, yet there are still a few surprises along the way.
Why MacFarlane decided to broach the long-in-decline genre of Westerns for his first leading role is anyone’s guess, though he does seem to have a genuine affection for the ages old setting. By writing Albert and Anna as almost modern characters living in a historic time, he offers us a different take on a Western comedy, allowing us as filmgoers to be part of the story as he and Theron offer modern commentary on timeless clichés.
There are also enough clever throwbacks to the genre and timeline as a whole (the multitude of ways one can actually perish in a time when everything and everyone wanted to kill you, how NO ONE ever smiled in pictures from this time, etc), that this attempt at an updated Blazing Saddles has more than enough freshness to make it more than a simple vanity project in between Ted films.
Unfortunately, MacFarlane detractors that have not even seen the film are already heralding this as a human indecency as well as a waste of quality film-stock. Being a casual to non-MacFarlane fan, even I have to admit: the guy has chops. Yes, much of the writing is suited to MacFarlane’s own delivery…so is every other comedian star-vehicle? Why does Rogen, McBride, Ferrell, etc. get a pass for playing themselves while he does not? By writing, directing and now starring – MacFarlane has more than proven he can deliver in just about any capacity.
MacFarlane does need to work a bit on his dramatic reading and ingeniously casting powerhouse actress Theron as his sparring partner certainly helped to carry the weight of the film, but he more than holds his own here. There are moments of real character here, more than just narcissistic sarcasm or throwaway racism. In fact, his palpable chemistry with Theron might be the most successful romantic pairing seen on film this year, as these two feel as though they are legitimately taken with each other. Take that, hipsters!
This is a comedy, which means we do not need some rough-skinned tough guy hocking into a spittoon while thumbing his six-shooter in order for this movie to work. We need laughs, plenty of them, and they need to come in both obvious and horribly politically incorrect ways. Comedians these days play it too safe and never seem willing to go for any joke that the audience cannot see coming three days ahead of schedule. For all of his faults (his occasional immature tendencies to run with blatant juvenile humor instead of a clever quip or his need to push the envelope just to see if it will rip), MacFarlane rarely plays it safe. Often times he can feel almost make you uncomfortable, as if he needs to pull it back some…until you realize so very few of today’s filmmakers would even try most of this, let alone pull it off to the degree MacFarlane does.
It does help that MacFarlane has aligned himself with quality actors and comedians. Theron, Neeson (gleefully mocking his recent tough guy persona), Amanda Seyfried, Neil Patrick Harris, Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman all contribute strongly, and there are several cameos here that just work. So many films throw in random cameos that contribute nothing to the film other than to say ‘Gotcha!’ Those during this film / after the credits and the impromptu ‘Moustache Song’ dance sequence are almost worth the price of admission alone.
Of all of the assistance MacFarlane has bringing this thing home, none surprises more than Charlize Theron. She shows a side here never before seen on film: One of a true comedienne. This is not one of those random pairings you find in an Adam Sandler or Kevin James film with some randomly attractive actress thrown into the mix, Theron is the real deal and often upstages MacFarlane himself. She is confidently charming and hilariously game for ANYTHING and will follow the joke (no matter how foul nor damaging to her career it may be) until its obvious conclusion. If you never thought you would watch Oscar winner Charlize Theron shove a dandelion up Oscar nominee Liam Neeson’s ass on-screen, well I am here to say that you are sorely mistaken.
A Million Ways to Die in the West is not for everyone. It is just not a family film nor does it pretend to be. I did like the modern skewering of a past society, the chemistry between the leads, and especially MacFarlane’s take on the Western genre as a whole. Does MacFarlane often point his camera a little too directly at his target? He sure does. But at least when he points, he is trying to push boundaries that most politically correct comedies and comedians stampeded away from years ago. For me, that is how the West is truly won.
If $10 is the full price of admission, A Million Ways to Die in the West is worth $7.50
The Hollywood Outsider