Seth MacFarlane | 111 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Navajo | 15 / R
The second feature from Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, after the justly popular Ted, A Million Ways to Die in the West is a disappointing mixed bag, half pretty-decent character- and situation-based comedy, half cringingly infantile toilet-humour tomfoolery.
MacFarlane stars as Wild West sheep farmer Albert, whose love of his life (Amanda Seyfried) leaves him for the owner of the town’s moustache shop (Neil Patrick Harris). Albert accidentally befriends new-in-town Anna (Charlize Theron) who, unbeknownst to him, is the girlfriend of the West’s most notorious outlaw (Liam Neeson) and is only laying low in his small town for a couple of weeks. A plot of love triangles and gunfighting ensues, littered with the aforementioned extremes of comedy.
One of the film’s problem is that said story is definitely too long in the telling — it feels like its reaching the end about halfway through, then it just keeps going… and going… The bigger problem, however, is the depths plumbed by its ‘humour’.
If you stick with it, there are some genuinely funny, clever bits. There are even some genuinely funny, not-clever-but-amusing bits. Unfortunately, there’s a shedload of puerile gags that just demean the whole thing, and it doesn’t help that some of the worst are early on, setting up poor expectations. They’re so bad I’m embarrassed to have seen them, so I’m certainly not repeating any examples — though one, involving Harris, the result of laxatives, and two other men’s hats, briefly has a funny bit in the middle when he tries to acquire the second hat. The film also uses swearing as a comedic crutch too often. I’m not one of those people who’s only tolerant of swearing if they feel each and every use is absolutely justifiable, and I don’t object to it as just part of dialogue, but too often the film leans on someone saying “oh shit” (or whatever) as if that’s a serviceable punchline.
For movie and pop culture fans, there’s entertainment to be had from some fun cameos and allusions, many of them literally “blink and you’ll miss it” (watch out, for instance, for a Family Guy cast member’s name, and a catchphrase callback the writers inserted accidentally). One cameo in particular has been criticised by some for just being the guy turning up, but… honestly, that would be fine if you didn’t know about it in advance. If you spend the film waiting for him to turn up, the joke (such as it is) is already ruined — the gag is just him being there when you don’t expect it; so if you do expect it, there’s no gag. That’s the problem with a Surprise Cameo at any point after opening night. Would it be better if there was a joke beyond just the Surprise Cameo aspect? Well, yes. Does it work as just a Surprise Cameo? If you don’t know it’s there — if it is indeed a surprise — then, well, yes.
The movie’s best running gag is its titular one. At first it just seems like the concept is going to be limited to Albert sitting in a saloon and listing ways to die, which isn’t funny; but then it keeps cropping back up, sometimes unexpectedly, which really works. The whole fair thing — a running gag within a running gag — is particularly effective. If the film had traded more on this, less on farting and other bodily functions, it would’ve been much improved.
Indeed, the following comment from iCheckMovies summarises my opinion perfectly:
A peculiar mixture of high and low brow comedy which makes it ultimately a bit uncomfortable. However there’s a sweet romance story hidden in there and a fun western (with some very clever gags) if you can get past its more crude side. Feels very much like it would have been quite a fun PG or 12 rated film if they had cut out the more unpleasant side.
That last sentence, in particular, is right on the money. The film’s good bits are genuinely likeable; if not a classic (as the Radio Times weirdly reckons), then a perfectly enjoyable comedy. The frequent doses of crude and toilet ‘humour’ drag the overall likability down massively, however. I think a PG-13 cut would be forced to be a superior movie. I dread to think what the 19-minutes-longer unrated version is like.*
I’d like to be able to recommend A Million Ways to Die in the West. The bits I liked, I really enjoyed. The bits I hated, however, I really despised. The best I can say is that your mileage may vary — is it worth suffering the lows to have the highs?
A Million Ways to Die in the West debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 4pm and 8pm.
* Though it does at least bother to explain why there’s suddenly a reference to Albert’s mother being dead late in the film — it screams “we deleted a scene!” in the theatrical version. ^