I went to see “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” Seth Macfarlane’s follow-up to the successful “Ted,” recently. If you liked “Ted,” you’ll probably like this, and if you disdained “Ted,” you won’t like this, but this column is for all of you who didn’t see “Ted,” and why “A Million Ways to Die in the West” didn’t deserve its fate of dying a withering box office death.
Look, I’m not going to make any great claims for this movie, but it’s a box office flop--opening weekend expectations were for $26 million, and it made barely half that--and it’s a lot better than many of the movies of recent vintage which made munificent sums of money (I’m looking at you, “Godzilla,” you turgid piece of burning refuse.)
Westerns, especially, gasp, a comedy Western, are notoriously dodgy box office propositions, and this is a staggeringly uneven effort. Scenes and sections are in such poor taste that you’re gobsmacked they made it into a major motion picture. The issue is that MacFarlane wrote, produced, directed, and stars in this movie; it’s his picture, for better and for worse. There’s nobody around to tell him, “Yeah, hey, Seth, maybe that sequence where Neil Patrick Harris is crippled by debilitating stomach distress isn’t such a hot idea.” Consequently, MacFarlane is the proverbial kid in a candy store, cutting-and-printing whatever strikes his fancy. It may have been a vanity decision to cast himself in the protagonist role, and he likely would’ve been much better served with a real actor in the part. I understand how proprietary writers get--he no doubt felt best-equipped to fire off the quips that sprang from his own consciousness--but he’s not a true thespian. He’s a talented writer, he does voices, and he’s highly creative, but he’s not a movie star.
Now, I did say “for better and for worse,” and there’s a lot of “for better,” too. Is the film filthy, raunchy, and in poor taste? Definitely. Is it funny? Absolutely. With everything from the opening to the scatological fascination to the music, he’s clearly going for a modern “Blazing Saddles,” and while he doesn’t even get close, that’s a noble aim, and, as the saying goes, if you reach for the moon and fail, you may still grab a couple stars.
There’s a funny bit about how people always have a grim countenance, not a smile, in old photographs, and MacFarlane’s finest moment as an actor is a long, frustrated diatribe about how living in the West in the late 1800s is horrible because everything--disease, snakes, weather, bandits, scorned lovers, incompetent doctors, wolves, etc.,--is trying to kill you. Some unfortunate folks also meet graphic demises at the town fair, leading to the knowing and repeated refrain, “People die at the fair.” Lastly, after MacFarlane drowns his sorrows at the local school, his friends caution him not to drink and ride (his horse).
Sarah Silverman, a comedian who certainly is well-accustomed to lascivious content, plays a woman of ill-repute who happens to have a conscience with her sweet boyfriend, played by a solid Giovanni Ribisi, and Liam Neeson capitalizes on his “Taken” persona as the deadliest and most-feared gunfighter in the West, but the incandescent Charlize Theron saunters into the town of Old Stump and effortlessly walks away with the movie--she’s sublime.
The phrase “natural actor” is overused, and people also usually use it incorrectly, but Theron is a natural actor in this and all her roles. She just is. There’s no acting or artificiality. Whether she’s a demented serial killer (“Monster,” for which she won as Oscar), an alcoholic, depressed, delusional writer with arrested development (“Young Adult”), a beleaguered and poverty-stricken Appalachian factory worker (“North Country”), or a wife in need of attention from an occupied husband (“The Devil’s Advocate” and “The Cider House Rules”), she’s never less than authentic, and--in “A Million Ways to Die in the West”--she proves she can be believable in any role. She’s the MVP in this film, and MacFarlane’s finest choice in making this movie may have been casting her.
He also deserves credit for the breathtaking landscapes. Shot on location in New Mexico, a decision that certainly bloated the budget, is worth it, because the red desert is gorgeous.
It’s not a movie you need to rush out and pay money to see, but it is worth watching, and it deserved better than the fate it got at the box office--a fate as gruesome as the one some of the movie’s characters received.
Ryan Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @randerson_ryan