'A Million Ways to Die in the West' Places Seth MacFarlane's Ego Front and Center

Perhaps MacFarlane will learn from his experiences, but with any luck, he'll learn the biggest lesson of all: his talents are required behind the camera, not in front of it.

A Million Ways to Die in the West

Director: Seth MacFarlane
Cast: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Sarah Silverman, Neil Patrick Harris
Distributor: Universal
Rated: R
Year: 2014
US DVD Release Date: 2014-10-07
"I'm not the hero. I'm the guy in the crowd making fun of the hero's shirt; that's who I am." --Albert (Seth MacFarlane)

Some of the hatred that has been directed Seth MacFarlane's hasn't been fully justified.

Although he's roundly criticized for the content of his numerous TV shows, MacFarlane as a public personality is in fact a far more interesting person, and anyone who ever saw him hosting the Comedy Central Roasts of both Donald Trump and Charlie Sheen actually saw that as a presenter, MacFarlane actually knew how to land a joke. At times he came off as smarmy, but in those situations, his bright and sarcastic personality absolutely worked, capable of witty zingers at a moment's notice while still making sure the "atmosphere" of the program never once went into a quiet lull. However, when he watered everything down to host the 85th Academy Awards in 2013, that same smarmy charm fell flat, as each hosting gig -- just like every new role or project an actor takes on -- requires a different approach, and simply doing his usual schtick didn't cut it, despite his own nomination for Best Original Song from his own mega-successful comedy hit Ted.

Emboldened by his success at the box office, MacFarlane decided that for his next passion project, he would make a comedy-Western, one that lead to his first major Hollywood starring role, playing across from Oscar heavyweights like Charlize Theron and Liam Neeson. While the hybrid of having goofy comedy being mixed with a Western aesthetic is undoubtedly a hard sell at the box office, the fact that the film was widely panned by critics didn't help either, and A Million Ways to Die in the West, MacFarlane's second directorial effort, wound up making less than one-sixth of what Ted made in terms of worldwide gross. There's a reason for this.

As Albert, MacFarlane embodies the role of the audience's anachronistic avatar, noting all the "fucked up" things he sees living in the 1800s, his town of Old Stump embodying every Western cliché there is to find. He is less than dignified during a pistol duel, leading his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) to hook up with noted Moustachery operator Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). Albert gripes about this to his best friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), who is also having his own troubles, not having sex before marriage with his girlfriend, Ruth (Sarah Silverman), who is a prostitute (this setup is one of the movie's funnier running gags). Albert's fortunes change, however, when he meets Anna (Theron), a renegade outlaw trying to break her way out of the crew of the murderous Clinch (Neeson), a notorious outlaw who ... you get the picture.

Despite even hiring an acting coach for the film (which he notes in the commentary), it is in fact MacFarlane's performance which ultimately sinks the film, because by playing the modern-day commentator on all the things "wrong" with living in this time period, the comedy that surrounds him feels wildly uneven, at times too self-conscious to work as meta-humor. By having Neeson play his scary gun-slinger with the "standard" Irish Neeson accent, his whole performance comes off as having little if any effort put into it. At other times, the humor employed is too base to work as gross-out entertainment, such as when Harris taking a crap in not one but two bowler hats prior to an important gun duel. Because MacFarlane essentially plays himself in the film, the audience never feels like there's actual importance or genuine emotion being imbued with the characters or their motivations -- it's all schtick. While schtick can work for an SNL segment, sustained over the whole movie it becomes pretty unbearable.

While the same argument of a "transparent" performance of this nature can be leveled against Silverman, she at least understands comic beats far better than her director, so while Ribisi still gets in some nice aw-shucks kinds of moments, it proves to be Silverman and especially Harris who wind up walking away with the film's funniest bits. Harris' sheep-related puns and lording claim that he could provide Albert's old girlfriend with "wrapped candies" as far more comedically satisfying conceits than virtually anything that comes out of MacFarlane's mouth. Charlize Theron for the most part phones it in, but she does get some halfway decent zingers in there. As her too-bubbly appearance on the film's commentary track proves, she is mainly doing this because she's a big fan of MacFarlane's Family Guy-styled humor, fawning all over his "dramatic" moments as they pop up, leaving her as the only person that finds value in them.

While MacFarlane and his writers are indeed able to get some halfway-decent sight gags in there (a photo taken at the fair causes an immediate explosion, leaving the photo subjects on fire which leads to them being shot for no reason -- glorious madcap insanity, all), their finding humor in sheep penises and deliberately racist jokes about the Chinese again prove not only distasteful in this context but just not funny. Again, MacFarlane's smarmy presence sinks so much of what could have been some great comic set pieces, his smugness unfortunately palpable to anyone who views the film. Even during the deleted scenes, MacFarlane tries his hand at improvising a lot of moments with Ribisi, and despite his muted presence, Ribisi proves to be a more talented improviser than his director is (doubly so in his scenes with Silverman during "Sex Night").

While the bonus features here are all slickly made (and include a ten minute alternate hallucinatory drug sequence which is really worth seeing), they appeal only to hardcore MacFarlane acolytes, just as how the "unrated extended cut" adds precious little to a film already suffering in both the pacing and story departments, with so little stakes for the audience to actually care about.

Now with his second feature under his belt, MacFarlane is proving himself a halfway-decent director, able to come up with some solid sight gags, some decent scripts, and garner some good performances from his cast. (Admittedly, in this case, it's from those with solid comic backgrounds, and definitely not from himself.) In the end though, by placing himself and his ego front and center, A Million Ways to Die in the West proves to be one of the most tired, remarkably unfunny comedies of recent memory. Perhaps MacFarlane will learn from his experiences and show some greater cinematic ambition on Ted 2, but with any luck, he'll learn the biggest lesson of all: his talents are required behind the camera, not in front of it.





The 60 Best Albums of 2007

From tech house to Radiohead and Americana to indie and everything in between, the 60 best albums of 2007 included many of the 2000s' best albums.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Solitude Stands in the Window: Thoreau's 'Walden'

Henry David Thoreau's Walden as a 19th century model for 21st century COVID-19 quarantine.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Will COVID-19 Kill Movie Theaters?

Streaming services and large TV screens have really hurt movie theaters and now the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered multiplexes and arthouses. The author of The Perils of Moviegoing in America, however, is optimistic.

Gary D. Rhodes, Ph.D

Fleabag's Hot Priest and Love as Longing

In season two of Fleabag, The Priest's inaccessibility turns him into a sort of god, powerful enough for Fleabag to suddenly find herself spending hours in church with no religious motivation.


Annabelle's Curse's 'Vast Oceans' Meditates on a Groundswell of Human Emotions (premiere)

Inspired by love and life, and of persistent present-day issues, indie folk band Annabelle's Curse expand their sound while keeping the emotive core of their work with Vast Oceans.


Americana's Sarah Peacock Finds Beauty Beneath Surface With "Mojave" (premiere + interview)

Born from personal pain, "Mojave" is evidence of Sarah Peacock's perseverance and resilience. "When we go through some of the dry seasons in our life, when we do the most growing, is often when we're in pain. It's a reminder of how alive you really are", she says.


Power Struggle in Beauty Pageants: On 'Mrs. America' and 'Miss Americana'

Television min-series Mrs. America and Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana make vivid how beauty pageants are more multi-dimensional than many assume, offering a platform to some (attractive) women to pursue higher education, politics, and more.

Hilary Levey Friedman

Pere Ubu 'Comes Alive' on Their New, Live Album

David Thomas guides another version of Pere Ubu through a selection of material from their early years, dusting off the "hits" and throwing new light on some forgotten gems.


Woods Explore Darkness on 'Strange to Explain'

Folk rock's Woods create a superb new album, Strange to Explain, that mines the subconscious in search of answers to life's unsettling realities.


The 1975's 'Notes on a Conditional Form' Is Laudably Thought-Provoking and Thrilling

The 1975 follow A Brief Inquiry... with an even more intriguing, sprawling, and chameleonic song suite. Notes on a Conditional Form shows a level of unquenchable ambition, creativity, and outspoken curiosity that's rarely felt in popular music today.


Dustbowl Revival's "Queen Quarantine (A Home Recording)" Is a Cheeky Reproach of COVID-19 (premiere)

Inspired by John Prine, Dustbowl Revival's latest single, "Queen Quarantine (A Home Recording)", approaches the COVID-19 pandemic with wit and good humor.


The 2020 US Presidential Election Is Going to Be Wild but We've Seen Wild Before

Americans are approaching a historical US presidential election in unprecedented times. Or are they? Chris Barsanti's The Ballot Box: 10 Presidential Elections That Changed American History gives us a brief historical perspective.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.