Saturday, 31 May 2014

A Million Ways To Die In The West (Film Review)

Yeah, this one wasn't good.

If you've done any research into this at all, you can likely already guess the kind of humour this is going to be from the name attached. Those who've not seen Seth MacFarlane as the main creative force behind the film will likely be able to guess from the trailers alone, which heavily feature slapstick and toilet comedy. While MacFarlane's previous film Ted used these to surprisingly good effect, A Million Ways To Die In The West fails to hit that same mark.

Set in 1882 on the American frontier, MacFarlane plays sheep farmer Albert Stark, who after losing his girlfriend to a rival finds himself let down and depressed. Even as he begins to recover and finds new interest in a new arrival to their town, Anna, Stark soon begins to find that she has introduced yet one more thing into his life which might kill him.

The choice of humour is the biggest negative here, as it often fails to hit its mark. While it's subjective and down to personal preference, so much of it seems to be done without meaning or context, or even serves purely to gross out the audience. Here it lacks the timing, framing or real build-up to have much effect, and ultimately this poor set-up really is what hinders many of the jokes. While it does allow for one or two unexpected gags to surprise you once in a while by coming completely out of left field, it highlights a big problem within the film: On the whole it is structured in an extremely slipshod manner.

Just about every film teacher on the planet will always tell you one thing is important to a script above all - reincorporation. As often as possible and as much as possible, any important element within the script needs to be reused and integrated at every turn. If there is an opportunity to use it, a writer should take it, either to close out a plot thread or even just to get a brief gag. While there are obviously exceptions to this, it's an extremely important thing to keep in mind for many a great film and many of the greatest comedy examples to date have this in droves. One of the pinnacles of comedy in the last decade, Edgar Wright's Cornetto Trilogy, is practically driven by extremely effective uses of relentlessly reincorporating anything and everything. Here? It's as if MacFarlane only half remembers this lesson.

Plot elements fail to really work cohesively as a single piece, instead fading in and out of the story for as and when they are needed. The initial reason Anna and Stark become interested in one another is ultimately resolved at the halfway point, and is promptly dumped entirely in favour of a bigger villain. This might have worked had this been something purely from the first act, but after so much focus, it instead feels botched and out of place. The same thing goes for a number of storylines involving other characters, which either fail to go anywhere or disappear entirely, or even characters themselves. By the end, half the ideas actually set up are long abandoned in favour of a single central villain.

In many respects the writing carries over a multitude of elements from Family Guy. From the sudden aside flashbacks to the sudden out of the blue cameos, you could spend all day drawing parallels between the two writing styles. However, whereas Family Guy at least has built up a solid core of characters and familiar elements for those parts to work off of, here the audience lacks any kind of familiarity. As a result, when Doc Brown suddenly shows up in an admittedly funny scene, you're only grinning because it reminds you of how good Back To The Future was. Even accepting this however, there are times when the cameos fail to really work, such as a sudden split-second appearance by Ryan Reynolds and Ewan McGreggor among others.

The unfortunate thing is that, when you can stop focusing upon the script for long enough, there are splashes of good among the bad. While he might fail to write the film well, MacFarlane's cinematography does capture many elements of the classic Westerns he was attempting to emulate. Similarly, the film boasts an impressive amount of talent on screen, even excluding sudden cameos, but it fails to truly utilise them. Few are actually allowed to walk away with any dignity. Notably Neil Patrick Harris effectively disappears after being on the receiving end of an increasingly unfunny bathroom gag, and Liam Neeson suffers from a shout out to Caligula of all things.

Poor jokes, a meandering plot with little focus, and a finale which discards the rest of the characters to focus entirely upon MacFarlane are what doom this film. With better focus upon the subject of its title, better gags and a more genuine feel of an old Western, A Million Ways To Die In The West could have been something special. As it stands, it's a production which is dead on arrival. Dig out Ted again if you're after a good laugh from this creator, but otherwise stick to Blazing Saddles for Western comedies.


  1. Good review. The trailers for this film looked really unfunny, which is a shame because i really like Seth Macfarlane despite a few missteps in his career
    ( Dads, Cleveland Show).

    1. Yeah, the man's undeniably talented, but much like George Lucas it just seems sometimes that he could use someone to occasionally shoot down bad ideas. Part of me honestly wanted to make a Heaven's Gate comparison here after the success of Ted, with possible overconfidence leading to tripe.