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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014

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In Movies & TV Reviews

Way to Die in the West No. 1,218: A blue jay to the skull, as demonstrated by "A Million Ways to Die in the West" star Seth MacFarlane (middle).

"A Million Ways to Die in the West" is pretty deadly in its own right


For most of his show business career, Seth MacFarlane has kept hidden behind the animated creations of "Family Guy" and "Ted." Recently, however, he's tried stepping out from his cartoon or CG creations in the hopes of making a bigger, broader career for himself. So far, the results have been mixed.

His Oscar hosting gig – an uneasy, fitfully amusing blend of Hollywood pomp and regality with his less-than-reverent "Family Guy" comedic stylings – put him on the receiving end of the annual chorus of "worst Academy Awards host ever." And now, with his raunchy and crude – but mostly just rude – new western comedy "A Million Ways to Die in the West," MacFarlane might be happy to let his animated creations take the helm once again.

The real killjoy at the heart of the film, however, isn't its star but its script (co-written by its star, so he's not off the hook yet). Instead of bringing out MacFarlane's better instincts – the ones that made "Ted" a rather raucously funny and occasionally sweet comedy – the screenplay indulges him in the worst aspects of a poor "Family Guy" episode.

Albert (MacFarlane) is a cowardly sheep farmer living with his grumbling parents in the 1882 American frontier. He's a weakling, but he's got strong feelings on one main point: the West. It's awful. It's filled with disease, wild nature and murderers, and if none of those manage to put you in an early grave, the town doctor – using miracle cures like pecking blue jays – will finish the job. Why is Albert so much more knowledgeable and advanced than everyone else? The script never says, but I hope you like this joke about the West being a dangerous place because it's one of the few it has to offer.

Tired of his moping and wimpiness, Albert's callous girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried, given little to do but deserves credit for putting on a good face when the movie mocks her signature big eyes for a cheap meta-insult) breaks up with him, leading to more moping. Hope arrives, however, in the form of Anna (Charlize Theron), a gorgeous newcomer who takes interest in Albert and helping him win back Louise from the pompous, mustachioed Foy (Neil Patrick Harris).

Predictably, over the course of their target practice, Albert and Anna begin to make some sparks of their own, the only problem being that she's married. A significant roadblock made even larger by the fact that her husband is Clinch Leatherwood, the meanest bandit and gunfighter in the entire region. A man so ruthless, he's played by Liam Neeson.

Of course, the crowning king of western comedies – and the one "A Million Ways to Die in the West" is unflatteringly doomed to be compared to – is "Blazing Saddles." A closer comparison point, however, might be the 2011 fantasy flop "Your Highness," and when I'm having flashbacks to "Your Highness," something has deeply gone wrong. Both feature casts far too good for the material, material that relies heavily on how hilarious the viewer finds loose anachronistic profanity and banter, lowest common denominator potty humor and overly violent slapstick.

Other than casual, profane crudeness – none of it delivered with much originality or wit – MacFarlane's one big joke is that, yes, the West was a pretty terrible place. There have been worse comedic conceits to base a movie around, but MacFarlane goes at it with the cleverness and depth of a Buzzfeed photo listicle titled "12 Reasons Why The West Was Totes Craaaazy." Most of the jokes simply consist of Albert explicitly pointing how awful the time period is. The movie would rather tell the viewer what the joke is (one time near the end, quite literally) rather than actually telling jokes.

A few times, MacFarlane and company stumble upon a decent idea. For instance, there's a gag about how no one smiles in old timey photographs. This is an amusing observation, but it's delivered as exactly that, then repeated until its initial promise has been taken out back and mercifully put out of its misery. Many of the jokes are given the same repetitive, overelaborated treatment. There may be a million ways to die in the West, but MacFarlane knows infinite ways to murder a joke.

When juvenile profanity, gross-out jokes weakly aiming for edge and glib one-liner observations fail, MacFarlane – and his two co-writers, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild – goes to his weakest comedic crutch: the random, apropos of nothing pop culture reference. There are two celebrity cameos – each lasting a second – and two pop culture references (one now seen in many of the ads) that aren't as much jokes as they are merely namedropping. They don't say or do anything funny; the comic premise is merely that this person exists, and you, the audience, know who they are.

MacFarlane's narrative doesn't pay off much better. The story is blandly predictable, led by a whiny hero (it's not the movie's fault, but man, there couldn't be a worse time for a "Why don't girls like nice guys!?" rant) who, as performed by its star, doesn't exactly make you eager to cheer him on. His on-screen comic delivery has a certain amount of smug, self-satisfaction to it, not aided by the character's superior attitude, while also occasionally working too hard to make jokes work.

Meanwhile, a subplot starring Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman as an innocent Christian couple who won't have sex – despite Silverman being a gleefully open-minded prostitute – comes and goes without building to much of a punchline or adding anything relevant to the story. It's just another one-joke tumbleweed, lifelessly puttering on screen and then right back off to parts of the audience's memory unknown.

Every now and then, after your maturity has likely been worn down to the point of surrender, there are a few chuckles to be had. A bit about bar fight survival tactics is an amusing sight gag, and the reveal of a mythical dollar bill is one of the few moments an observation gets worked into a clever, creative joke. Neil Patrick Harris winds up the MVP just by playing up his silly cad of a character and merely over-annunciating words like "wrapped candies" with delightful relish. That kind of modestly goofy humor, however, will not be tolerated, so he winds up pooping in a hat.

While chuckles can be found, actual laughs are hard to find. Thanks to its excessive 116-minute running time (which feels even longer after the movie has a big showdown, only to remember Neeson is still in the movie and chug on for another 20 minutes), sitting through the movie feels like panning for gold in a long, polluted stream of profanity, poop jokes and sheep privates. At least it looks nice (the beautiful rocky vistas, richly shot by Michael Barrett; not the poop jokes and sheep privates).

Unfortunately, the imagination and creativity implied by the title "A Million Ways to Die in the West" doesn't extend far enough to come up with more than a handful of ways to make an audience laugh.



Theaters and showtimes for A Million Ways to Die in the West
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