Howdy, y'all! Here's Dancin' Dan with a contrarian opinion on last weekend's 'other' new release, which was not greeted so kindly. - editor.
Seth MacFarlane's A Million Ways to Die in the West is not Ted. That much should be obvious. It does not include a talking teddy bear and takes place in the Old West. But it bears repeating: A Million Ways to Die in the West is not Ted.
Frankly, I hate even making the comparison, but I kept doing so all throughout MacFarlane's seriously funny send-up of Old Hollywood Westerns. Right from the opening moments, it's a step up from Ted's television-quality visuals: Cinematographer Michael Barrett sends us soaring through Monument Valley, site of many of the greatest Westerns ever made, and Joel McNeely concocts a perfect old-fashioned Wild West score. But what really makes the difference here is the humor. For the most part, it's less foul-mouthed than Ted, except when it comes to Sarah Silverman's prostitute Ruth, who giddily talks about all the things she does with her male clients but not with her fiancée Edward (Giovanni Ribisi).
It works inspite of itself really. There's too much gross-out potty humor (the film certainly could have done without the images of a cowboy hat full of diahrrea and a sheep pissing on MacFarlane's cowardly Albert) and MacFarlane's sarcastic modern sense of humor is not always a great fit for the period trappings. But neither of those things stop the jokes from being funny.
After Albert gets dumped by the pretty, empty Louise (the pretty, empty Amanda Seyfried - was the comic brilliance of her Mean Girls performance a fluke?), he goes on a rant to his best friends Edward and Ruth about how terrible life in the Wild West really is, a 'disgusting, awful, dirty, dangerous place' where everything wants to kill you.' As a comedic monologue, it's pretty good, and as a mission statement for the film it's damn near perfection. Not every joke or bit in the film reaches that level, but a suprising number of them do - there's a running gag about how people never smile in old time-y photos that is killer. thanks largely to a cast of actors who get the kind of stylization a film like this needs in order to work.
A good deal of the credits goes to the actors who get the kind of stylization a film like this needs. Silverman in particular has a way with the script's most vulgar bits that somehow manages to make her hooker Ruth a sweet person - to the point where you actually believe that she doesn't want to sleep with Edward until after their wedding because she believes it should be special. Neil Patrick Harris is clearly having a blast playing Foy, a (literally) moustache-twirling villain with whom Louise shacks up immediately after dumping Albert. The way he says the words "wrapped candies" is impossibly hilarious, and his musical number is a showstopping highlight.
But the film owes the most to Charlize Theron. Theron recently proved she her comedic chops again in the underrated Young Adult, and here she's game for everything MacFarlane throws at her. She's a comic gem who never loses sight of the character: Anna is the wife of infamous gun-slinger Clinch (Liam Neeson, being Liam Neeson), who treats her like a piece of property. They married young ("I didn't want to be one of those fifteen year-old Old Maids," she says in one of the film's best lines), and since then Anna has come to realize she hates life in the West. Conveniently, she gets sent to the town of Old Stump and meets Albert, and they bond over their mutual hatred of the time and place in which they live. Theron makes you believe that she would actually fall for this cowardly, out-of-time doofus. She gives this ultimately silly film more than it probably deserves, and softens MacFarlane's rough edges in the process.
That's quite a feat because, let's be honest, this is a vanity project. No one was particularly clamoring for any kind of film set in the Wild West, but after Ted's massive success, Seth MacFarlane could do anything he wanted. And he wanted to direct, co-write, and star in A Million Ways to Die in the West. There's nothing inherently wrong with this. Woody Allen did it for years, no matter what people said about his onscreen persona. But for many people, MacFarlane represents and projects a kind of repellent, smug attitude, and that is certainly present here. He's not a particularly good fit for the character of Albert specifically, and his non-stop jokes often read as a desire to pull focus. That's irritating because elsewhere it's clear how much he loves the source material he's sending up and twisting. In his quieter scenes with Theron, there's an ease that isn't present elsewhere, a refreshing softness that cracks through the surface of snark. It's almost enough to make you wish his next film would be something a bit more subtle.
Oh, who am I kidding? For better and worse, Seth MacFarlane is not one for anything subtle. A Million Ways is approximately one peyote trip too long and suffers for it, but I can put up with MacFarlane's indulgences, as long as he brings the funny. And he does. A Million Ways to Die in the West may be nothing more than a walking talking anachronism, but it damn sure had me in stitches.