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June 25, 2016

A Million Ways to Die in the West

by Franz Patrick


Million Ways to Die in the West, A (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

Tired of her cowardly boyfriend being up to the same old schtick, Louise (Amanda Seyfried) has decided to break up with Albert (Seth MacFarlane) a sheep farmer who detests living in the Old West. Though he is determined to get her back, just about every time they meet in town presents yet another opportunity to embarrass himself—especially since Louise has taken on a new beau (Neil Patrick Harris). However, when a beautiful woman named Anna (Charlize Theron) meets Albert, she just might offer a friendship that he needs to move on. Unbeknownst to Albert, Anna is the wife of the deadliest and most feared outlaw in Arizona (Liam Neeson).

“A Million Ways to Die in the West,” written by Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, is a rambunctious and anachronistic western-comedy, with many jokes ranging from the sexually frank and politically incorrect to desperate. And yet it does not completely work. One of the reasons is because the picture reflects that of various sketch-like scenarios cobbled together to make a two-hour movie. Thus, it becomes a challenge to keep our attention—especially since the jokes are hit-or-miss in the first place.

The other—and perhaps more problematic factor—is the contrived romantic storyline. It is stretched from beginning to end that it eventually gets under the nerves and tests the patience. Similar to bad romantic comedies, the writers never provide a reason why or how the couple who break up in the beginning of the film were together in the first place. Right from their initial scene together, we can tell they are completely wrong for each other. Thus, there is no tension there, no underlying conflict. Thus, we do not care.

Seyfried playing her character completely straight, as if she were in a serious western drama, is a miscalculation. Though she is normally a very charming performer, she does not give her character a chance to be liked here. A little smile here and there or a bit of spice and cheekiness might have turned her character’s b-word persona into someone with a little bit more layer to her. Seyfried playing a straight-up mean girl is no fun.

Even the villain is a bore. Though played with a sort-of danger and growly menace by Neeson, like Seyfried’s character, Clinch Leatherwood also feels out of place. But instead of coming from a serious western drama, it feels as though he is straight off a western revenge-thriller, somewhere along the lines of Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.” And although that could have been the intention, the character is not exaggerated enough to symbolize true evil in the West. To me, the character is not anything more than a common bandit whose actions have received enough word-of-mouth that he has become a legend.

I laughed sporadically and chuckled somewhat consistently. I enjoyed the scenes when the material gets literal with the title, showing people dying in all sorts of ridiculous ways mixed with some historical truths. It is most disappointing that these do not compromise most of the picture. They are more like punctuation marks in the protagonist’s story of self-pity and broken heart. MacFarlane should have stuck to the jokes even if they do not always land. This would have resulted in a steady momentum—and a shorter running time.

The film is highly commercialized in that it tries so hard to appeal to as many people as possible that it ends up impressing barely anybody. In other words, it spreads itself too thin. Couple such a quality with a painfully ordinary man-wants-to-win-back-his-woman storyline, it becomes a slog to get through. Thus, I have to ask: Can a lack of brain stimulation be another way to die in the West? It sure felt like it.

At one point, MacFarlane’s character learns how to shoot. He shoots at bottles from a couple of feet away. No luck. So he moves a little closer. Still no luck. Then he walks directly in front of the bottles. Still, the bullets fail to touch the glass. That scene is funny on its own… and because it embodies how badly the film misses the mark at times.

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