Western comedies have a spotty track record. It’s always tricky blending two movie genres, but Westerns and comedies in particular generally don’t work well together. Blazing Saddles, City Slickers, and Back to the Future, Part III may have pulled it off, but more often than not, the end result is more Wagons East! than Three Amigos!. A Million Ways to Die in the West unleashes a barrage of shots at its tricky target; the ones that hit the mark are brilliant in their comedy, but the ones that miss fall painfully flat.
The brainchild of Seth MacFarlane (he who created Family Guy, American Dad!, and the 2012 sleeper hit Ted), A Million Ways to Die in the West centers upon meek sheep farmer Albert Stark (MacFarlane). Albert is an anachronism in the Old West, unleashing anfractuous rants about life in 1882 with the cadence of a stand-up comic and dropping references to two-way streets, How I Met Your Mother, and Mila Kunis.
Following his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) leaving him for “moustachery” owner Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), Albert begins bonding with the mysterious woman who just rode into town, Anna (Charlize Theron). After Albert gets into a heated argument with Foy that leads to a duel in a week’s time, Anna sets about training Albert, so he can win back his ex’s heart.
As was the problem with Ted, MacFarlane never knows when to end a scene on a high note. Like an improv performer wanting to milk every laugh out of a premise, he lets loose one joke after another after another, as they seemingly come to him. When MacFarlane’s on point, it has an accumulative effect, making the whole picture seem funnier. When he’s off his mark, though, each flatlined joke compounds in awkward discomfort.
MacFarlane also doesn’t seem to believe he’s funny enough to be entertaining through purely funny writing and delivery, instead resorting to jokes about flatulence, diarrhea, and urine that go much farther than they need to — which would still be fine if only they served any purpose beyond comedic desperation.
Despite its flaws, A Million Ways to Die in the West remains hard to dislike, in large part because of MacFarlane’s cheeky charm and the combination of his “aw shucks” expressions with his ribald comments. MacFarlane has excellent comedic timing and knows it, giving himself dialogue that feels like an observational middle-ground between Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld.
The supporting cast, which also includes Liam Neeson, Giovanni Ribisi, and Sarah Silverman, is as game as MacFarlane. Neil Patrick Harris, in particular, milks every laugh out of each line and utterance his moustachioed suitor is given. And if you appreciate the value of a good cameo, A Million Ways to Die in the West does have what you want in spades.
A Million Ways to Die in the West had the potential to join the classics in its subgenre, but is ultimately held back by how far it takes its jokes, how many jokes fail, and how poorly it judges when to just call things quits. It proves to be an enjoyable movie with moments of comedic greatness, but it either needed more funny jokes or fewer unfunny ones.