Of all the possible genres that Seth MacFarlane could spoof, what possessed him to go choose the only one that might not mean a thing to general-interest contemporary audiences who have not grown up with westerns? After the successful twisted fairytale of Ted, Mr. MacFarlane must have had the choice of his material, so his decision to make a comedy western rings wilfully perverse - a defiant admission of love for a genre that has all but disappeared from a modern day Hollywood that is financially-minded as never before, as well as a show of confidence in his ability to pull it off in the contemporary climate. (Misguided, judging from the film's cool box-office reception.)
In that sense, A Million Ways to Die in the West is as nostalgic, and as inherently personal, in its love of old-fashioned Hollywood as was Ted. There, the 1980s Spielbergian fantasy was given a raucous, self-deprecating sheen; here, it's the classic underdog western, the tale of the farming pioneer battling the harsh life of the Wild West frontier, that is given a subversive, realist twist. Mr. MacFarlane's hero, aggrieved sheep farmer Albert Stark (played by the director himself) bemoans throughout the film the absence of "all mod cons" in 1882 Arizona, the aggravation of living somewhere where anything can happen and anyone can die at any minute - making him a modern-day neurotic anachronistically transplanted to the 1880s.
Still, behind all that, this is just like Ted: at heart a classic romantic comedy, the tale of the "bro" who wants to hang on to the right girl in his life, playing the usual arc "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back" under cover of Saturday afternoon matinee make-believe juvenile heroics. But A Million Ways to Die in the West does not work as well as Ted did, and not because Mr. MacFarlane trades in anachronistic if fairly funny jokes; it doesn't work as well because the hyphenate star (acting, directing, producing and writing) continues to be a purely functional director with little visual sense and a sense of rhythm and tempo straight out of television comedy, and because he can't cut the film down to size. If "brevity is the soul of wit", to quote from Shakespeare, then Mr. MacFarlane allows himself to run well over time, without quite knowing when to stop.
It's a shame, because while this is not another Blazing Saddles (made when westerns were still relevant and with a lot more scathing affection in 90 minutes than A Million Ways to Die in the West can muster in nearly two hours), it has much to enjoy, especially for genre fans who will recognise there's really not a nasty bone in the film's ribbing of reworking of western clichés, trashing it out of love rather than out of spite. There's another great comic turn from the criminally underrated Charlize Theron and a superb supporting double act from Sarah Silverman and Giovanni Ribisi. And, above all, there's the madness of wanting to do a spoof western in an era where the genre is retreating more and more in cinephile minds. That doesn't make A Million Ways to Die in the West more than a fun if forgettable film, but that it is this much fun might not have been expected.
A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST
Cast Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Giovanni Ribisi, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman, Liam Neeson
Director Mr. MacFarlane; screenwriters Mr. MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild; cinematographer Michael Barrett (colour, widescreen); composer Joel McNeely; designer Stephen Lineweaver; wardrobe Cindy Evans; editor Jeff Freeman; visual effects Blair Clark; producers Scott Stuber, Jason Clark and Mr. MacFarlane; production companies Universal Pictures, Media Rights Capital, Fuzzy Door Productions and Bluegrass Films
Screened May 30th 2014 (distributor press screening, NOS Colombo 1, Lisbon)