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Writer/director Seth MacFarlane took a monumental step forward in his career with Ted, is 2012 directorial debut. After spending years working on television and developing a collection of animated hit shows, MacFarlane proved to the world that his specific brand of comedy could transcend to a tighter storytelling medium and work just as well in live action. There was a lot of promise shown by MacFarlane as a filmmaker -- and even a hint that features could be a more natural fit for his style. That still could turn out to be true, but sadly, MacFarlane’s sophomore effort, the western comedy A Million Ways To Die In The West, does nothing to advance the argument. In fact, it actually damages it.
Based on a script penned by the same Ted team – MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, and Wellesley Wild – this new comedy begins in Arizona circa 1882, and follows the tale of Albert Stark (MacFarlane), a cowardly, pessimistic sheep farmer sick and tired of living in the horrific time period that was the Old West. After he is publicly humiliated for wussing out of a gunfight, things only get worse after he learns that his long-time girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), is dumping him for being too much of a wimp. Albert is ready to give it all up and move away, but things start to turn around when he meets Anna (Charlize Theron) -- a beautiful, mysterious, badass woman who moves into town and takes it upon herself to help Albert become manlier and win Louise back.
Those who have followed MacFarlane’s work over the years know that he prefers random jokes to humor derived naturally from the plot, and while it’s hard to really judge him for this approach (he has had more than enough success with it to this point in his career), it becomes a problem when the jokes just aren’t funny. There are certainly some great moments in A Million Ways To Die In The West, from the multiple bizarre pop culture cameos to some great reaction moments from the townspeople milling in and out of the story. But more often than not, the film operates on either non-sequitur clips that fall flat or gags that are run into the ground through repetition (such as the relationship between a virgin played by Giovanni Ribisi and his prostitute girlfriend played by Sarah Silverman). While this is tolerable at first, eventually the movie’s ratio of funny-versus-unfunny moments becomes badly imbalanced, and it’s hard not to notice.
Perhaps the only thing worse than featuring bad jokes in a comedy, however, is completely forgetting to actually make the audience laugh – and this is a sin A Million Ways To Die In The West is surprisingly guilty of. There are extended sequences in the film – such as a drawn-out introduction to Liam Neeson’s rough outlaw character – that actually fail to include any comedy whatsoever, funny or not. These scenes are used to get across important plot information or exposition, and it’s just plain lazy writing. The movie demands so heartily that you not take it seriously that when any kind of real drama occurs, the results aren’t thrilling; they’re boring.
As an actor, Seth MacFarlane creates a mixed bag of results for his first live-action, lead role. Albert’s dialogue is certainly tailored to fit the actor/filmmaker’s particular cadence and delivery, but what the platform really doesn’t do is let MacFarlane put on much of a dynamic performance. While it doesn’t necessarily hurt the film, Albert really comes across as a modern-day man (a perfect set up for a time travel joke that never comes), and MacFarlane doesn’t do anything to give his character a personality beyond the star’s own real one. Given how many different, diverse animated characters he’s crafted and brought to life with his voice over the years, it’s disappointing that he didn’t try to do more with this role.
Because of how much I enjoyed Ted, high expectations had me laughing quite a lot in the first act of A Million Ways To Die In The West, but it’s surprising how quickly the worst elements of the film began to stack up, and do their part to tear the whole thing down. Seth MacFarlane has shown us that he is much funnier than what’s on display in his second directorial effort, and it’s a significant misstep.