Watching ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’ is like panning for comedy gold

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A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

Directed by Seth MacFarlane

7/10  R

A satire of the ridiculous motifs of the great American Western, “A Million Ways to Die in the West” proves that there’s still humor left in the spoof. Seth MacFarlane, coming off his directing debut in “Ted” (in which he also lends his voice to the animated title teddy), proves himself one of the funniest live-action comedic actors of our time. He’s great hiding behind characters like Peter and Stewie (of “Family Guy,” which MacFarlane also created), but he’s even better in the flesh. MacFarlane possesses the timing of a a-million-ways-to-die-in-the-west-3classically trained stand-up comic. He plays Albert, a cowardly sheep herder who accidentally gets himself roped into a duel with the man (Neil Patrick Harris) who’s dating Albert’s ex-girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried). Thankfully, a sharpshooter (Charlize Theron) who’s riding through town gives Albert a quick lesson in shooting. But she has a past that might come back to haunt Albert, his friends (Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman), and everyone else in town when outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson, sporting a thick Irish accent) comes to town.

A script from MacFarlane and other “Family Guy” writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild picks apart everything that was ridiculous about the American West in the 1880s. “Modern” medicine, family photographs, shoot-outs. They all get their 15 minutes of shame. It just says what we’ve all been thinking for years. But with a plot this sturdy, sometimes the script has to focus on the story arc rather than the gut-busting humor. It’s not non-stop funny, but part of me says 9_lit’s better for it. Because when the jokes do come, they really hit you. You’ll howl. And what might be even funnier are the situational gags, the actions without words that left my small-town theater’s packed crowd cracking up. The biggest shame? That “A Million Ways to Die in the West” felt the need to cloud this comical plot with a crybaby break-up story and a rebound hookup with zero chemistry. I’m not buying the romance. One of the things I loved most about “Ted” was its ability to make relevant and hysterical cultural references. Sadly, a story set in the 1880s has little relevant culture about which references can be made. Lines about Mark Twain don’t pack the same heat as a joke about, say, Justin Bieber would. Sad, but true.

Stars like Neil Patrick Harris (in a hilarious role with class to spare) and Charlize Theron (clearly having a ball with MacFarlane…the fun is contagious) are wonderful, but it’s the minor characters that get the major laughs. Almost every word that comes from the a-million-ways-to-die-in-the-west-sarah-silverman-giovanni-ribisi-600x316mouth of Albert’s crotchety old father (played by Christopher Hagen) is comedy gold worthy of prospecting. It’s the same method MacFarlane uses in “Family Guy.” You expect the main characters to give you funny lines, but when the minor characters do you laugh even harder at the unexpectedness of it. Pepper in a few hysterical and relevant cameos, and you have a comedy cornucopia of acting greats.

Unlike “Neighbors,” 2014’s other comedy hit, “A Million Ways to Die in the West” has other things on its mind than continuous gags – like plot. It’s a comedy epic. It’s not quite “Ted,” but I’d say MacFarlane has done it again!

“A Million Ways to Die in the West” is in theaters now.

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5 thoughts on “Watching ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’ is like panning for comedy gold

    1. I thought it was better than it was funny, if that makes any sense. Something like “Neighbors” has zero plot, all jokes. “A Million Ways to Die in the West” lightens up on the comedy to provide a decent plot.

  1. Have to disagree about Neighbors not having a plot! The plot may not have been extraordinary…but it was there. It built up characters and relationships well while giving them all a central goal.

    However, I hope that I like this one too. Well written review! I expected the romance in this one to suck so no surprise there! Glad that the comedy paid off!

    1. The plot in “Neighbors” is nothing like the plot in this one. It’s not the best I’ve seen, but it’s a story that takes some time (and a few relatively unfunny scenes) to set up.

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