Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy and 2012 comedy hit Ted, is a divisive figure, and his work generally follows suit. For those not enamoured with his comedy style, A Million Ways to Die in the West, his new comedy, may well simply be too much MacFarlane to take. As co-writer, director, producer and star, MacFarlane is all over the film, and at closing in on two rather stretched hours, even his most ardent fans might struggle with his sophomore directorial effort.
MacFarlane plays Albert, a put upon sheep farmer whose girlfiend (Amanda Seyfried) breaks up with him in an early scene and hitches up with slimy moustache obsessive Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). Albert is feeling mopey until a mysterious beauty called Anna (Charlize Theron) rides into town and helps him forget his troubles.
The film feels disjointed on a number of levels. For much of the first hour, what little narrative drive there is gets lost in a series of comedy routines that are pretty hit and miss. After introducing Liam Neeson’s villainous Clinch Leatherwood as the prime antagonist, MacFarlane allows him to vanish from the entire mid section, leaving a love story to develop between Albert and Anna. We get supporting turns from Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman, as well as Seyriend and Harris, but while sporadically amusing, none of the threads are funny or interesting enough to make the film feel like it’s really going anywhere. There are enough successful gags to prevent boredom setting in, but the film can’t decide where it wants to settle down. Even the central gag contained within the title – that the American West was a terrible place to be – isn’t really pursued with much vigour.
When the film allows its disparate bits to quiet down and focuses in on the love story, it’s not an unlikable experience. Theron is game and probably the strongest element in the film, bringing just the right amount of sarcastic sass. MacFarlane, meanwhile, is actually not bad opposite her. The comic delivery is decent when the gags are good, but there aren’t a huge amount of big laughs in the film.
MacFarlane also finds disappointingly little to do with his wild west setting, forgoing much of the promise of the opening credits, which suggest wild vistas and epic scope. The film is actually rather small in scale and lacking truly memorable set pieces. Neeson’s role is so underwritten and his performance so uninspired that the finale doesn’t add up to much, and a brief sojourn with a group of Native Indians, including a weird dream sequence, fail to hit the mark.
The film’s humour scores surprisingly low on the offend-o-meter, not something we might expect from MacFarlane, and too often resorts to scatalogical or crude gags, most of which fail to draw the required laughs. There are moments of wit in the script, and one or two strong scenes, but the film feels oddly directionless for much of its runtime.