Seth McFarlane wants to make Blazing Saddles so badly, you can pretty much picture him dry humping an old VHS copy through most of watching A Million Ways to Die in the West. While that’s certainly a grand and understandable aspiration (making a movie like Saddles, not the humping), Blazing Saddles was the type of lightning in a bottle genius that even Mel Brooks only really managed to capture once. Young Frankenstein, though equally brilliant, feels like a completely different type of film to me and not just because it’s parodying a different genre. None of Brooks’ other films had that kind of balls to the wall anarchy that worked as the world’s most topical and adult Looney Tune, combining genuinely affectionate parody, anachronism and surrealism in a way that almost never occurs in live action filmmaking.
McFarlane does not achieve the same heights as Brooks. He doesn’t even really reach the same levels as he did previously in Ted. It’s a mix of issues with the script, the tone and McFarlane’s performance as a leading man. Despite these issues it still manages to be funny. I am McFarlane neutral, having enjoyed a lot of the original run of Family Guy before it faced its first cancelation. Since then I’ve been less a fan of his television work, but I found Ted to be quite funny. Those who hate McFarlane will not be swayed by this movie. There will be plenty of his fans for whom he is the white Tyler Perry that will declare the film brilliant. So for those of us that remain in the middle, here’s some dissection.
Let’s start with the writing, which plays in a lot of ways like Shakiest Gun in the West but with a central relationship that plays beat for beat like a teen comedy romance. In so many ways, the movie feels like it was written by a teenager who thinks he’s smarter than everyone else. That’s really only half an insult because teenagers can at times be really damn funny and they’re often willing to do things that older folks know better than to do. The problem is that in many cases they also think they’re the first ones to do it. McFarlane writes his character as the male Mary Sue that populates the autobiographical writings of every outsider teen boy that has ever felt put-upon. Including myself when I was in high school. He knows better than everyone else and he hates everything about his life. While this leads to a few very funny sequences involving his righteous indignation spilling out in torrents, eventually his limited charisma is not able to make up for the character having some basic issues with likability. Even this would be forgivable if his timing were better, but there are instances when it feels like his punchlines just lay there.
McFarlane’s character, a sheep farmer, is dumped by his girlfriend at the beginning of the film because he’s a “nice guy” and she immediately jumps into a relationship with Neil Patrick Harris, who is the consummate movie douchebag. Enter Charlize Theron, unknowingly the wife of the most notorious gunfighter in the west (Liam Neeson). She decides to help McFarlane try to get his girlfriend back and they fall in love. Now he has to learn confidence and face down the bullies. I’d worry about spoiling the plot if the whole thing wasn’t so paint by numbers that you can predict every single story moment that occurs from the first ten minutes. Like a lot of comedies, it’s not so much that the story is important for its plot, but for being a framework for the gags.
The tonality of Million Ways creates some issues in that it feels like many of the characters act like they’re in different films. Charlize Theron and McFarlane actually have a very easy chemistry and it’s through their relationship that we like him. Her lackadaisical acting style does surprisingly well. The character is the only one that really has much of an arc, even if its one we have seen a thousand times. Amanda Seyfried, by comparison, has nothing to do except be an object of desire and to allow Neil Patrick Harris something to play on. Even Sarah Silverman in a supporting role as a a hooker has more depth. Now Harris… wow. I think he may be phoning his performance in from another planet. His mustache-obsessed store owner feels much more stylized and cartoony than most of the loose performances of the cast. When he hits, he managed to pull some of my biggest laughs from the film, but he is also so weird that sometimes it’s almost more uncomfortable than humorous. Then you have Liam Neeson, who gives a fantastic performance full of true menace. Which in this case is like dropping Hannibal Lector into The Office. Neeson can be funny, but here he is completely out of place because he’s simply too good at his role. Giovani Ribisi is in the film because McFarlane wants to make sure his family has food.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I laughed a pretty decent amount during the movie because while uneven it has moments where it is very, very funny. (Unfortunately, two of these moments are Family Guy-style pop culture reference cameos, one of which was ruined in the trailer, but I refuse to also do so for anyone that hasn’t seen it.) Like Ted, there are moments when a sweetness manages to break through the rampant gross-out gags involving sheep sex organs. His animation experience also helps some of the physical moments, especially when we see some of the title’s Million Ways that people can perish in the Arizona 1882 setting.
It simply seems to be one of those cases where the problems stand out more than the positives upon reflection, even though I overall liked the film and would recommend it to his fans and those that really enjoy R-rated comedy. It pulls no punches and, like Neighbors, goes right after that particular niche, though I think it won’t have as wide an appeal as that one. Sometimes mixed reviews are the hardest to write. I think this is one of those times. I recommend it, but tentatively.
(Three damns given out of five)