MacFarlane's "A Million Ways" Worthy Of A Niche Audience

“A Million Ways To Die In The West” is sure to induce a lot of head scratching, as arcane passion projects tend to do. It’s the kind of bizarro mainstream release that’s routinely rebuffed at the box office, its prospects even gloomier when considering the number of hit comedy-westerns since 1974’s “Blazing Saddles.” Those counting won’t need more than a finger or two. How, then, did it come to fruition? The film’s existence is mostly owed to the success of writer-director Seth MacFarlane’s first feature length film, “Ted,” a bawdy comedy about a cursing, pot-smoking teddy bear. It reached a level of profitability that leads to the rarest of rarities in Hollywood – the creative and financial blank check. Hence, “A Million Ways To Die In The West.”

It’s a thoroughly anarchic piece, made by Seth MacFarlane for Seth MacFarlane, general audiences be damned. Which is why – here’s the twist – it works wonders as a curio. The parts of the film that will play as grotesque or awkward or obscure for most viewers (read: most of the film) should strike pop culture enthusiasts as fascinating, if not outright hilarious. The film improbably manages to balance comedy, romance, and a deep affection for old westerns while mercilessly making fun of them. And if many of the more vulgar jokes miss their mark, MacFarlane’s aim is true when it comes to the pic’s continuous meta-commentary.

MacFarlane, in what’s ostensibly his debut as a leading man, plays a rancher named Albert, a walking, talking anachronism. It’s 1882, but our hero is unaware. There are no references to time travel – well, almost no references to time travel – but Albert speaks as though he’s been dropped in from 2014, as do most of his fellow Arizonans. He’s just been broken up with by the love of his life, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), and he’s at a loss for confidence. Enter the mysterious Anna Leatherwood (Charlize Theron) and our protagonist finds himself in the middle of a blossoming friendship – and perhaps more, unbeknownst to Albert. Self-esteem restored, he blindly continues his pursuit of Louise.

Neil Patrick Harris features as the mustachioed lothario who’s stolen Louise away, while Sarah Silverman and Giovanni Ribisi amuse in a subplot about a prostitute who wants to wait for marriage to sleep with her virginal boyfriend. But the film thoroughly belongs MacFarlane, who wonderfully accents his usual smarminess with some real vulnerability, and Theron, who wows with her comedic chops and general warmth. There’s a surprising, palpable chemistry between the two, and when the story begins to wander, their chatty scenes carry the film with ease. As laughable as it sounds, it’s one of the Oscar-winner’s most endearing roles to date.

The pic’s production values are tremendously slick, from a bona fide musical overture over the picturesque opening credits to significant on-location work in world-famous Monument Valley. In a dumber film – fear not, “A Million Ways” is plenty dumb – the massive budget wouldn’t add up to much, but the level of authenticity here really sells one of the film’s strongest points – the razor-sharp commentary on the absurdities of the genre. Albert is on hand to disabuse us of any romanticized thoughts of the old west, and multiple running jokes in that vein – including the observation that, in photography’s infancy, nobody smiled – are strong connective tissue for a willfully slapdash screenplay.

Moreover, the titular throughline provides for some grimly amusing physical comedy. Liam Neeson’s role as Clinch Leatherwood, violent outlaw and abusive spouse to Anna, doesn’t add up to much, but his inevitable demise is so bizarrely staged as to nearly justify the character’s existence. The same can be said of Harris’ one-dimensional character, who lends the film an excuse for an absurd musical interlude about mustaches. Most of the film’s ingredients don’t make any sense, a conceit likely to drive most potential viewers batty, but fans of weirdness for weirdness’ sake will likely eat it up.

MacFarlane’s worst instincts have been a TV staple for a decade now in the form of “Family Guy,” but between the intermittently amusing “Ted” and the improvement that is “A Million Ways,” it’s clear that movies are a better fit for him. Instead of applying a herd of random ideas to a milquetoast premise and stretching them out over the course of a TV season, he can pour those equally random ideas into an inherently more focused format. It’s as if the premium on time forces him to self-edit and his films are all the better for it. “A Million Ways” doesn’t work at all as an accessible comedy, but, despite a sizeable budget, it’s not trying to. It’s an experiment, and those will always be welcome to students of the oft-boring pop culture landscape. Leave it to someone as divisive as Seth MacFarlane to win and lose all at once.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: May 29, 2014
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Seth MacFarlane
Screenwriter: Seth MacFarlane, Alex Sulkin, Wellesley Wild
Starring: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Amanda Seyfried, Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman, Neil Patrick Harris
MPAA Rating: R (for strong crude and sexual content, language throughout, some violence and drug material)