1. Think about how much of an indictment it is to say, "All the good jokes are in the trailer" about a movie. Trailers, at most, are three minutes long. A Million Ways to Die in the West runs 116 minutes. That is a ton of time to comb through to dig out a Family Guy-esque gag about running into Emmet Brown and his DeLorean, and Seth MacFarlane being hit in the head with a plate. It makes you appreciate the job of a trailer editor. What must he or she have thought? "Shit, I gotta pull something together out of this?"
2. A Million Ways to Die in the West is the type of movie in which you find yourself counting the number of times you laugh. I ended up at three. To be fair, had I not seen the flux capacitor joke in the trailers, there might have been four. The movie is poorly written (the title is explicitly stated in dialogue at least four times), poorly directed, and poorly conceived from the outset. It takes skilled actors and strands them with nothing to do—a particular shame, because I personally would love to see what people like Charlize Theron and Liam Neeson could do if they were in a comedy. Because they're not in one here.
3. At this point, I should probably mention that I—to some renown in these parts—did not like Ted, Seth MacFarlane's hit 2012 comedy about a racist teddy bear who smoked weed. I still don't think that movie's any good, but it is Young Frankenstein compared to A Million Ways to Die in the West. I think what's most surprising about this movie is how weirdly slack it is when it comes to actually making jokes. You see "Seth MacFarlane makes a faux Western," and you expect it to be packed with gags, overflowing with fart jokes and pop-culture references. But no, MacFarlane, sort of insanely, wants us to take this seriously. There's a love story, and sappy dialogue played entirely straight, and full multiple-minute scenes in which Neeson terrorizes the citizenry without a joke to be had. MacFarlane keeps changing his mind whether or not he's sending all this up, which makes the movie just limp from scene to scene. (Even the musical number feels half-hearted.) I might not like his comedy, but with Ted, you had to at least appreciate his commitment to throwing every potential joke at the wall without much concern over how many of them landed. Here, the joke-to-running-time ratio is dangerously low. It's like he couldn't be bothered.
4. I'm not sure it would have worked anyway, because MacFarlane cast such a charmless dud at the center of his movie: Himself. He is not a seasoned performer in the first place—he always sort of seems to be standing next to himself, smirking—but asking him to carry a movie as flimsy as this is the sort of disastrous decision that could only be made out of self-absorption. This is a Wayward Boob role, the modern-day comedian placed in an anachronistic setting, and you need a specific sort of persona to pull it off. (Bob Hope invented this, but Gene Wilder, Woody Allen, Peter Sellers, even Eddie Murphy have all handled it deftly.) Whereas MacFarlane's default persona is "bland doof." He sort of shambles aimelessly from one scene to another—he even seems to have bad posture—and when it comes time for him to emote (because he has written scenes where he needs to emote), he scrunches up his eyes and gazes blankly forward. MacFarlane is not untalented, but suffice it to say he doesn't have natural, easy charm as a performer. And, typical of the self-aggrandizement at hand, he has written himself the only part with anything to do. Putting him at the center of the film was suicide.
5. The saddest part about A Million Ways to Die in the West is that you can sense MacFarlane holding back, as if he saw this as a way to "mainstream" himself, file off the rough edges—make himself a leading man, a conventional hero. The movie isn't nearly as cheerfully offensive as Ted was; there's a black joke here, a gay joke there, an Asian joke every once in a while, but otherwise, the movie takes it easy on MacFarlane's signature "edgy" humor. He really thinks he's behaving. But if you take away the schtick, all that's left is a shaking, scared nerd right in the middle of the frame, desperately trying to convince us Charlize Theron thinks he's funny and wants to kiss him. Roger Ebert, in his review of the Andrew "Dice" Clay concert film Dice Rules, wrote that it "could not be more damaging to the career of Andrew Dice Clay if it had been made as a documentary by someone who hated him." That's sort of how I feel about A Million Ways to Die in the West. This movie feels like it was made by someone who wanted to humiliate Seth MacFarlane. Maybe it was.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
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