By Alan Mattli
“There’s a million ways to die in the west”, the eponymously titled film’s protagonist Albert, played by writer-director Seth MacFarlane, announces at the climactic gunfight. By this point, the audience hardly needs any more convincing, having so far witnessed people burning to death due to malfunctioning photography equipment, being shot, stabbed, crushed by gigantic ice blocks, and impaled by loose bulls, to name but a few. After this cavalcade of increasingly ludicrous ways of kicking the bucket, the millionth way to die in the rough-and-tumble world of the Wild West, as delineated by hapless sheep farmer Albert, is almost disappointingly commonplace: death by rattlesnake poison.
Even though this appears to be the scene’s, and by extension the movie’s, punchline, it exemplifies one of the main issues that plague A Million Ways to Die in the West, the second full-length feature – after 2012’s breakout comedy Ted about a bawdy teddy bear – by MacFarlane, who has previously reached fame and notoriety as the creator of the animated sitcoms American Dad! and Family Guy. There’s an at times ungainly discrepancy between the different forms of humour on display here, which may work in a television setting but doesn’t translate as easily onto film. As A Million Ways attempts to juggle Pythonesque absurdity, bone-crunching physical comedy (i.e. silent-era slapstick with the goriness turned up), socially and culturally conscious jabs, and base humour mainly concerned with sex and fecal matter, whilst developing several interweaving narrative strands over an ambitiously timed two-hour period, some of the boyishly immature charm that made Ted such a surprisingly arresting affair is lost in the mix. Jokes about the romanticised notion of the frontier experience, dialogues evoking, of all people, Wes Anderson’s penchant for skew lines of conversation (“You’re late” – “For what?” – “Fair enough”), and the image of urinating sheep seem pitted against each other rather than harmonising parts of the same whole.
This is a pity, as the movie is cannily based on tackling one of the most glaring examples of mindless romanticisation in modern history, fuelled not least by more than a century of western genre filmmaking. Life in the Old West, Albert frequently reminds the viewer and his mates, is terrible; and why anyone in their right mind would choose to live in this part of the US in 1882, when A Million Ways is set, is utterly beyond him. Disease is rampant, shootings are a daily occurrence, the mayor has been lying dead in the gutter for days, and if one actually does manage to survive long enough in the desert community Albert calls home, one has to live with offhand racism and religious bigotry. MacFarlane’s character, steeped in 21st century sensibility, describes all these ills in hilariously cynical rants, which undoubtedly constitute the movie’s highpoints.
But for every successful side blow against romantic preconceptions about “olden times”, for every ironic subversion of a western trope – the sets of this supposed frontier town hellhole are, in accordance with genre fashion, immaculately clean –, there is an uninspired fart joke to cut the movie’s perceptiveness down to size. However, being a comedy, one cannot fault A Million Ways too much for keeping its thematic ambitions at a low level. Instead, the pivotal question must be whether the film is entertaining and, to put it in the simplest of terms, funny. It is, in spite of overlength and perhaps an overreliance on its – nonetheless serviceable – plot, which consists of Albert trying to win back his girlfriend (an ineffectual Amanda Seyfried) by challenging her new beau (a delightfully silly moustachioed Neil Patrick Harris) to a duel, for which he trains with the mysterious Anna (an affable Charlize Theron), while outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson) approaches the town.
Finally, a footnote should be reserved for the film’s formal merits. Stylistically, A Million Ways borrows more copiously from the genre it parodies than many other western comedies, including Support Your Local Sheriff! and Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. Apart from its terrific non sequitur homages to Django Unchained and Back to the Future Part III, it offers many a treat for the western enthusiast, from specific references to Shane and The Searchers to the broader appropriation of images and icons – Monument Valley makes numerous appearances – that hark back to the works of Hawks and Ford, which adds to the cinematic value of this hit-and-miss comedy.
★★★½ (out of six)
For more reviews (in German), visit www.facingthebittertruth.com.