million ways to die in the west reviewThe comedy Western is a notoriously tricky genre to tackle, with only a few filmmakers (usually masters like Mel Brooks or Quentin Tarantino) actually able to pull it off. In recent years, big-budget Westerns, released in the summer, have even more difficulty getting off the ground -- just ask the makers of "Cowboys & Aliens" and "The Lone Ranger." (Is it still "too soon" to talk about "Wild Wild West"?) But none of this seems to have affected Seth MacFarlane, the co-writer, director, and star of "A Million Ways to Die in the West."

MacFarlane stars as a hapless sheep farmer who challenges Neil Patrick Harris to a duel. Harris is the new beau of MacFarlane's ex, played by Amanda Seyfried, a fancy man who owns a store that sells mustache oils. Of course, MacFarlane gets some much-needed advice (on both women and gun-slinging) from a mysterious stranger played by Charlize Theron, who is outrunning an outlaw of her own: her husband, played by none other than Liam Neeson.

With a cast that's rounded out by Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman, "A Million Ways to Die in the West" looks to break the summer Western curse and prove itself as one of those rare comedy Western whose tone actually works. But does it succeed? Or does it die a horrible death on the summer movie frontier?

1. Seth MacFarlane Is NOT a Leading Man
Seth MacFarlane is many things: one of the most successful showrunners in the history of television, an impressive voice performer on both TV and in movies (keep in mind that he even did one of the voices in Guillermo del Toro's wonderful "Hellboy II: The Golden Army"), and an iffy Oscar host. But he is not a leading man, despite his very best efforts here. He's visibly uncomfortable and lacks the charm and presence required of most leading men. Instead, he just stands around, acting neurotic, while some of the most beautiful women in the world fight over his affections. Ah, narcissism, my old friend.

2. Charlize Theron Gets to Exercise Her Comedic Talents Again
In 2011's deeply underrated "Young Adult," Theron got to show off her funny side. It was pretty impressive. Since then she's only been in two movies, both of which were very dark and very serious (at least on a superficial level): "Snow White and the Huntsman" and "Prometheus." Now she's back to being goofy, and the results are marvelous. Just because she is stunningly beautiful and a wonderful dramatic actress (she won the Oscar for "Monster," we have to remember) doesn't mean that she can't crack a joke with the best of them. We also get to see her handle physical comedy here, which she is just as game for. Unfortunately, much of the material she has to work with is stiff and whole sequences involve her simply laughing at MacFarlane, to reinforce what a hilarious guy he is.

3. It's Pretty Gross...
MacFarlane has never shied away from potty humor (although, here I guess it should be "outhouse humor") and "A Million Ways to Die in the West," with its R-rating, is no exception. Want to see horrible violence, randy sexual humor, and beloved star of stage and screen Neil Patrick Harris poop (violently) into someone's hat (and then poop into somebody else's hat)? Well, this is the movie for you. It's unclear whether MacFarlane knows what he's going to for or if he's simply trying to be provocative and cutting edge.

4. ...But It's Not Funny
For all of the fart jokes, F-words, and violent visual humors that are needlessly crammed into "A Million Ways to Die in the West," this reviewer didn't laugh. Once. And I was seated next to a colleague who can have a great time in pretty much anything. But he, too, sat stone-faced as we watched the embarrassing parade of gags roll by. By no means was I a fan of "Ted," but there were a few jokes in the movie that made me giggle until my side hurt. There is nothing like that here.

5. There's Zero Explanation for All of the Modern References
At some point, you want MacFarlane to explain why nobody is talking like they're in the old west, or at least give some reason for why his character is clearly a modern guy in an ancient era. But he never does. Instead, characters talk like they would today, using modern slang and pop culture references, and there isn't even a passing reference to why everyone sounds like they should be in a 2014 mall instead of 1882 Arizona. It's representative of the laziness of the entire film.

6. Liam Neeson Is Terrific
Yay, Liam Neeson is in this movie! We love him! He gets to snarl, threaten, and ride a horse in all the excellent ways you'd expect Liam Neeson to do such things. Sadly, he's only in the movie for about five minutes, even though much of the marketing and promotion for the film is built around his presence. Whoops.

7. Yes, There Are a Ton of Cameos
This is a Seth MacFarlane film, after all, so there are a whole bunch of very high-profile cameos. One of them has been needlessly spoiled by a recent TV ad that seems to air during every commercial break of the NBA Finals. But there are a whole lot more, too. (The best is in the middle of the closing credits, so be sure to stick around.) Do these all-star appearances add up to much? No. But are they are a welcome distraction from the rest of the movie? Why yes!

8. There Isn't Any Fun to Be Had With the Format
The Western genre offers up seemingly unlimited opportunities to play with the format. Not only can you amp up the film's score to Spaghetti Western-style heights of melodrama, but you can also play with the frame itself, squeezing it into Sergio Leone-worthy bands or playing it out in big wide masters. Some great examples of monkeying around with the formal aspects of western filmmaking are Sam Raimi's deeply underappreciated "The Quick & the Dead" and Gore Verbinski's animated delight "Rango." Sadly, "A Million Ways to Die in the West" isn't playful in the same respect.

9. Only a Few People Die
Even though it's called "A Million Ways to Die in the West" and Seth MacFarlane's character can't shut up about what an awful, deadly place the Old West is... Not that many people die. Maybe a dozen or so characters actually kick the bucket, and many of them are just background players who get horribly killed in ways that wouldn't be out of place in one of the "Final Destination" movies.

10. Hey, 'Ted 2' Is Coming Soon
If you hate "A Million Ways to Die in the West," there's a silver lining: "Ted 2" is coming soon.

Photo courtesy Universal

CATEGORIES Reviews, Movies