For the countless fans of the Leone-spangled, Morricone-adorned legacy of the great Spaghetti Westerns, it’s tough to accept that the revolver-toting sub-genre of decades past has died a death. Given a fitting and wonderful send-off by Eastwood’s Unforgiven, Andrew Dominic’s immaculate The Assassination of Jesse James and a classy remake of the 3:10 to Yuma have still failed to reignite a widespread interest in the days of saddles and frontiers. It’s rather sad, but the fact is people just aren’t that interested in cowboys any more. I don’t see them coming back any time soon, either, and A Million Ways to Die in the West certainly hasn’t convinced me otherwise.
Don’t get me wrong, I liked Ted – Seth MacFarlane’s previous venture into feature length film – quite a bit. Its gross-out humour and numerous profanities failed to cover up the old-school, oddly innocent comedic formula at its heart. There is none of that charm in his latest outing, just the story of a hapless sheep-farmer (MacFarlane) inevitably torn between two bonneted belles (Amanda Seyfried and Charlize Theron) in a dust strewn town on the edge of the Great American Frontier circa 1882.
While Ted felt like a fresh and original take on the Guys v. Girls buddy comedy, A Million Ways to Die in the West is essentially Along Came Polly with square-dancing. The set-up for a romantic comedy just doesn’t fit comfortably in the skin of a Spaghetti Western homage, let alone one largely devoid of both romance and comedy.
While you’ll probably just about hit the Six Laugh Quota that forms the baseline for an acceptable comedy, A Million Ways to Die‘s hit to miss ratio is appalling. For every joke that lands, there’s about 6 or 7 that don’t, leaving several awkward and barren periods of anti-comedy as MacFarlane and co. stretch out a gag that wasn’t funny in the first place. Add to that various unnecessarily gross out sequences that play at complete odds with the multiple scenes that shoot for genuine emotional resonance, and you’ve got one hell of a patchy comedy. It’s not Airplane and more relevantly, it’s not Blazing Saddles. As a matter of fact, it most closely resembles Back to the Future Part III – overlong and unsure of itself.
And boy is A Million Ways to Die in the West long. At 2 hours, the film becomes a chore in its various laughless doldrums, then hints at an ending, then goes on for another half an hour. It feels like a rough cut rather than a finished article, with pieces of dialogue awkwardly cut down into briefer exchanges as the editing process attempts to tame a script in chronic need of a couple more rewrites. There are a few funny sequences and some smart observational humor, but the film refuses to throw itself far or deep enough into the remits of bawdy comedy or farcical spoof, near constantly retreating to a muddled middle-ground – a film too afraid to choose a proper direction.
It also doesn’t help that most of the film’s funnier segments were revealed in the trailer, confirming my earlier suspicions that A Million Ways to Die in the West‘s ad campaign appeared to suffer from Simpsons Movie Syndrome – namely, allowing your marketing campaign to blow most of your comedic load before anyone’s actually seen the film. Fact of the matter is even the funniest joke will get tired with overuse, and I must have heard that “People die at the fair” line a good half a dozen times before I even sat down to watch the ruddy movie.
A Million Ways To Die In The West is not a flat-out failure, it’s just a pretty disappointing product put together by a group of talented people largely on autopilot. MacFarlane seems to be the only one properly invested – understandable since he’s also credited as writer and director – using his natural showmanship and knack for physical comedy to somewhat make up for the lacklustre script. He’s evidently well-meaning, never stepping the wrong side of mean-spirited and placing a pleasant amount of emphasis on driven female characters, but all the good intentions in the world aren’t going to make a bad film any better.
It’s an odd one, A Million Ways to Die in the West. Its thoroughly untimely pastiche on a sub-genre long defunct brings to mind the unfortunately premature release of Mystery Men, a superhero spoof that missed out on the post X-Men explosion by less than a year. That’s not to say that A Million Ways to Die In The West won’t rake in the cash by the bundle, but it feels like a film from another time – and certainly one that needed more time. While Mystery Men was a largely overlooked gem packed with real heart and genuine hilarity, MacFarlane’s tale of saloons and shoot-outs just feels rushed. The drama is depthless and the comedy frequently laughless, leaving plenty of room for mirthless silences and the occasional passing of a tumbleweed.
Overlong and comedically uneven, A Million Ways to Die in the West spends far too much time treading water and nowhere near enough time being funny.