Seth MacFarlane misses in the West

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½ out of 4 stars

 Family Guy? I love it. I will be the first to come forward and say that. Seth MacFarlane has completely changed the landscape of television comedy for the better thanks to his topical humor and keen sense of pace. We saw this a few years back with his live action directorial debut Ted, an inspired comedy with heart and pinache.

Charlize Theron and Seth MacFarlane (Photo is screen shot from trailer)
Charlize Theron and Seth MacFarlane
(Photo is screen shot from trailer)

MacFarlane’s take on the Old West, A Million Ways to Die in the West, lacks the spark that we have seen from his past endeavors and just seems tired and uninspired in comparison. Despite a few strong performances and a keen sense of the western genre, the fact remains that this film is deadly unfunny and agonizingly long.

A smart yet cowardly sheep farmer named Albert Stark (Seth MacFarlane) has it pretty rough, all things considered. His prissy girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) just dumped him for the town’s egocentric moustacherie owner Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). His only real friends seem to be a kind-hearted hooker (Sarah Silverman) and her sweet, dim-witted boyfriend (Giovanni Ribisi), who just wants to have sex with his girlfriend despite her pleas to wait until marriage (cue the running gag).

And Albert lives in a small town in late 19th century Arizona, where everything and everyone seems to be trying to kill him in some way, shape, or form.

Albert’s life is turned around, though, after a mysterious woman named Anna (Charlize Theron) comes to town, befriends him, and helps him prepare for a gunfight he unwittingly got himself into with Foy.  Unfortunately things are much more complicated than they seem, as Anna is secretly the scorned wife of the most dangerous gunslinger in the West, Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), who is none too happy to hear of Anna and Albert’s newfound “friendship”.

MacFarlane has had a tendency to be quite wooden on screen and he certainly shows this here. But he does have something working for him this time around. A little something the acting community likes to call “Charlize Theron.”

Sarah Silverman and Giovanni Ribisi (Photo is screen shot from trailer)
Sarah Silverman and Giovanni Ribisi
(Photo is screen shot from trailer)

The two have an incredible chemistry that provides the most inspired moments of the entire picture. Harris seems to just be trying too hard to mine comedy from the script and Neeson is flat out given nothing to work with. Silverman and Ribisi have an interesting side story, but their talents just seem to have been wasted by lackluster material.

To MacFarlane’s credit as a director, he knows the western formula to a “T”. The sweeping landscapes are perfectly captured and the score and tone recreated quite well. This accuracy tends to work to his disadvantage more often than not, however, as the comedy of this comedy never comes to fruition next to the parodied genre.

MacFarlane and his editing team have chosen to take this piece at a brutally, unbearably slow pace that destroys every joke before it even begins. In addition, his actors seem lost or bored on screen, as if their only direction was to watch a few seasons of Family Guy and then come back ready to recreate these moments live.

MacFarlane teams with his usual writing pals Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, but the three have really lost their mojo when it comes to their screenwriting. This screenplay seems to think it is far smarter than it actually is, particularly when the jokes directly touch on the title and its inherent themes.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some potentially great ideas behind this conceit, but these writers have not found them. The film spends far too much time talking about how horrible it is to live in the Old West and not nearly enough time showing us why it is so bad.

Liam Neeson (Photo is screen shot from trailer)
Liam Neeson
(Photo is screen shot from trailer)

To top it all off, whether due to editing or poor judgment, the majority of the writers’ contribution lies in the love story between Anna and Albert.  Much of this story ends up being plain boring and slightly confusing, as the first act of the film has set us up for a slapstick comedy as opposed to a sweeping romance.

Yes, MacFarlane and Theron are nothing short of charming together, but they cannot carry an entire two hours (all one-hundred and twenty minutes of them) on romance alone.

This could have worked. It should have worked.  Mel Brooks made an entire generation of filmgoers completely gaga over this subject matter with Blazing Saddles.  Maybe he already took all the best material and left nothing for MacFarlane?  Who knows?  But whatever funny ideas the writing team had seem to have been either destroyed by editing or watered down in execution.  The timid, tedious piece that has resulted gives us little to enjoy other than Theron and MacFarlane shooting the breeze, and the two talented actors just cannot salvage this un-comedy.  I have faith though, Seth.  Bring it next time, I still believe in you!