Film Review: A Million Ways to Die in the West

It is a little odd that Universal Pictures decided to release A Million Ways to Die in the West just a few weeks after their immensely successful frat-boy vs family comedy, Neighbors, which is still pulling in decent numbers at the box office and will likely continue to do so. It might be a while before people lose sight of that comedy. But Neighbors benefited from lots of hype at SXSW and screenings dating back to a month before its release, whereas A Million Ways to Die in the West seems to be riding on less than mediocre trailers and its star cast.

Granted, that description undermines Seth MacFarlane (TedFamily Guy)’s appeal, and it will be interesting to see if that is enough to convince audiences to flock to the theatre when the film releases on May 30th. The comedian directed, wrote and executive produced A Million Ways to Die in the West, and also stars as the main character, Albert. Albert is  a sheep herder who is dumped by his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried, Mean GirlsMamma Mia) for his lack of courage and manliness. While Louise immediately runs into the arms of Foy (Neil Patrick Harris, How I Met Your MotherHarold and Kumar Go to Whitecastle), a wealthy shopkeeper, Albert meets Anna (Charlize Theron, MonsterYoung Adult), a newcomer to town who starts helping Albert to develop the confidence and skills that he needs to get Louise back and survive in the West.  What Albert does not know is that Anna is notorious outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson, TakenSchindler’s List)’s wife, who is out seeking revenge.

A Million Ways to Die in the West is a film where there really are no comedic rules. MacFarlane tries to go for a bit of everything and while that mix throws off the consistency of the type of laughs, it also adds an element of surprise as to what type of comedic tone the film is going to take on between each scene. This is supported by the endless amounts of cameos who randomly appear throughout the film, one of which was spoiled in the second trailer for the film but is still hilarious when experienced in the actual context of the film. Between Albert’s friends’ Edward (Giovanni Ribsi, TedGangster Squad), and his girlfriend, Ruth (Sarah Silverman, School of RockThe Sarah Silverman Program) awkward relationship conditions, the obligatory drug scene, a ridiculous musical number, the endless ways one can die in the west and in true MacFarlane spirit, some unnecessarily gross and those “He went there” moments, there are a range of laughs to be found in this near two-hour film.

Even some of the more obvious and expected jokes worked, save for one cringe worthy scene where Neil Patrick Harris’ character Foy says, “Challenge accepted!” exactly like Barney Stinson would. It was one of a few times in the film where you felt like you were watching these actors play characters that they have played before or simply playing themselves while dressed up in suspenders, dusty trousers and peasant skirts with a glass of whiskey in hand. When these occurred, it took you out of the movie a little bit and made you feel like you were watching a Western parody, which is what MacFarlane intended to do when setting out to make this film. It’s a little more blatant at times, like when characters point out some of the flaws in plans and settings (such as, why are there always locals around during a show down?) and some of the loopholes that are more characteristic to old Western films. Gorgeous shots of New Mexico’s deep valleys, stand offs at gun point, and an intimidating criminal were fun nods to the genre, but don’t think that these elements indicate a serious entry into the Western film catalogue.

Although Amanda Seyfried’s character is quickly reduced to everything typical of “the ex girlfriend”, the rest of the cast gets a lot of interaction with MacFarlane’s material. Sarah Silverman fits right into this kind of film and it’s great seeing Charlize Theron take on a comedy again, especially since her character is a more experienced and intimidating counterpart to MacFarlane’s Albert, who is easy to sympathize with in all of his shortcomings and fears as a civilian in the West. Liam Neeson is absent for most of the film until the third act, but it is so funny seeing his tough persona being ridiculed with a flower (this will make more sense once you see the film, of course). It’s these types of situations that actually make the film much more entertaining than what is suggested in Universal Pictures promotional materials, and hopefully word-of-mouth will help the film gain traction if people don’t turn out for this Seth MacFarlane show.

I attended an advanced screening of A Million Ways to Die in the West and won tickets through a free giveaway from Universal Pictures Canada. 

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