#ThrowbackThursday – A Million Ways to Die in the West

Original US release date: May 30, 2014
Production budget: $40,000,000
Worldwide gross: $87,189,756

Hot off the success of 2012’s Ted and the continued popularity of “Family Guy”, Seth MacFarlane was riding high and feeling confident.  He was feeling confident enough to try something new: a crude, situational comedy set in the wild west.  He put together a stellar cast to come along for the ride in Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Neil Patrick Harris, Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman, Liam Neeson, and several fantastic cameos while, as with Ted, he took the directing reigns for himself.  Unlike that film, however, MacFarlane also assumed the lead role.  Critics and audiences loved Ted yet, even though the style of humor was much the same, they generally rejected A Million Ways to Die in the West.  Did the film deserve such treatment?

MacFarlane plays lovable loser Albert.  Albert is well aware of the ludicrous nature of the wild west and how, in this time, it’s dangerous simply to be alive.  His only respite from the pure terror of simple, everyday life is his girlfriend Louise (Seyfried).  After Louise breaks up with him, Albert meets Anna (Theron), the professional and romantic partner of Clinch Leatherwood (Neeson), the most notorious criminal in the territory.  Anna works to help Albert improve his confidence and win back his beloved Louise.

As I mentioned before, A Million Ways to Die in the West employs much the same style of humor as Ted, but without the quirky and unique concept.  Setting the film in the late-1800s certainly sets the film apart from others within its genre, but the level of inventiveness in terms of its concept is not quite on par with an anthropomorphic frat boy teddy bear.  Much of the success of Ted lay within its high-concept appeal.  Without that, A Million Ways probably had an uphill battle from the start.

I can understand it if not all of the humor is appealing to everyone.  MacFarlane is a clever and witty guy, but he also complements that wit with a fair helping of crass toilet humor.  Toilet humor has never been my thing and this movie did nothing to change that.  But there’s enough intelligent humor throughout the film that I’m willing to take the bad in order to enjoy the good.

And there’s plenty of good.  For much of the film, MacFarlane takes a Jerry Seinfeld/Larry David approach, invoking lots of wild-west-centric observational humor and plenty of funny-because-it’s-true comedy, in addition.  MacFarlane excels at this sort of thing and, while I don’t mind when it’s infused with cruder elements, I wish he would focus entirely on these stylings and leave things such as laxative jokes on the cutting room floor.  He’s better than that and the film attains a certain charm when he leaves the Lowest Common Denominator humor behind and focuses on doing and presenting the things that other people in the business aren’t thinking of.

The film is also not without heart.  There’s a nice character arc as well as lessons that can be applied to everyday life.  None of this is particularly new to film, but it may be a bonus to certain viewers who are looking for something in addition to the comedy.  Honestly, I don’t know how much crossover there is from the group who loves MacFarlane’s comedic style into the group who likes to get the warm fuzzies.  Clearly MacFarlane is one.  And I guess I’m another.  But I doubt there are too many of us.  So, chances are good that if MacFarlane were to stick to being funny and leave out the warm-heartedness, the box office for films such as A Million Ways might be significantly larger.  It’s likely that – upon being exposed to this material that leans a little deeper –  his target audience loudly protests that they aren’t getting what they signed up for and drives others away.  It’s a shame that it would come to that, but it seems to be a more frequent occurrence that filmmakers must choose between making money and being true to their own vision.  In that case, I would never encourage anyone to sell out their brainchild for the sake of others who will likely be unappreciative of their efforts, no matter what they consist of.

The bottom line is that the film isn’t perfect – and it’s a little long for a comedy – but it’s consistently funny and entertaining.  There will almost certainly be components that any individual viewer won’t care for, but the majority of the humor is clever and delivered impeccably by a fantastic cast, so it’s worth the time in spite of its flaws.  I enjoyed re-watching it, myself, and laughed out loud a quite a few occasions.  MacFarlane has a unique outlook on the world that repeatedly makes me wonder why I didn’t think of it first.  If you’re open to some crassness mixed in with your wittiness, you can do much worse than A Million Ways to Die in the West.

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