They say dying is easy, and comedy is hard. Few movies have proved that to be true as well as “A Million Ways to Die in the West.”
People die all over the place in this movie; the laughs, unfortunately, don’t arrive with the same regularity.
“A Million Ways to Die” is the creative brainchild of Seth MacFarlane, who is best known for his animated television empire and an underwhelming turn as host of the Oscars.
MacFarlane’s TV shows, like the flagship “Family Guy,” get by on a flurry of non-sequiturs and pop culture references, but MacFarlane showed he could go a little broader and a little deeper making the leap to movies with the high-concept, living-teddy-bear hit “Ted.”
Now MacFarlane is stepping out in front of the camera to star as a cowardly sheep rancher named Albert, while still performing the duties of writer, director, producer, and I’m just going to assume, makeup, wardrobe, and craft services.
Since this is a “Western comedy,” the natural inclination is to compare it to “Blazing Saddles,” which is like comparing the Bad News Bears to the 1927 New York Yankees. So let’s just get it out of the way.
Mel Brooks showed up in his own movies, but he was smart enough to stay off to the side, while geniuses like Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn carried the load.
MacFarlane proves to be just OK as a comedic actor, which would be forgivable if he wasn’t in practically every scene in the movie.
He then went and surrounded himself with really good actors who aren’t comedians. Liam Neeson plays the villain — an outlaw named Clinch — but never really gets the opportunity to play off of anyone or anything funny, so he just menacingly stomps around the movie.
Charlize Theron plays Clinch’s wife, who is sent to hide out in Albert’s small town and eventually becomes Albert’s love interest after he is jilted by his girlfriend Louise, played by Amanda Seyfried. Again, both ladies are charming and talented but don’t have a lot to offer in the way of laughs.
Even Giovanni Ribisi, who has dabbled in comedy in a career full of darker supporting roles, doesn’t have a lot to do as Albert’s uptight best friend Edward.
The only seasoned comedy vets around are Sarah Silverman, placed right into her sweet-girl-saying-horrible-things wheelhouse as Edward’s prostitute girlfriend Ruth, and Neil Patrick Harris as Louise’s mustachioed new beau.
MacFarlane is able to make his point that the reality of the romanticized Old West was backward and brutal, but trying to build laughs around that thesis lands a little flat.
The most positive thing I have to say about this movie is it looks stunningly fantastic. Cinematographer Michael Barett (a guy who has spent most of his career shooting lousy comedies) went absolutely out of his mind with the scenic vistas of Monument Valley as his backdrop.
Of course, finding yourself drawn to cinematography is probably not the best thing when talking about a broad comedy.
There are some funny moments in “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” and a few of them are inspired, but you just keep waiting for it to find its stride and it never does. Hopefully, MacFarlane will learn his talents are better suited behind the camera or he might find out there are a million ways for careers to die in Hollywood as well.
“A Million Ways to Die in the West” is rated R for strong crude and sexual content, language throughout, some violence, and drug material.