Comedy is often hit or miss and Seth MacFarlane’s brand is no exception. Add in the fact that A Million Ways to Die in the West is, well, a western that comes across as a vanity project and the movie has quite a bit going against it. Despite all those factors, the movie is quite enjoyable. A Million Ways to Die in the West is a good comedy that could have been great.
One such issue holding the movie back is the movie’s opening. The pacing is a bit slow as the movie sets up all the pieces to move the story along and doesn’t kick into gear until Charlize Theron shows up. Comedies aren’t renowned for epic plots but this one is coherent: Albert Stark (MacFarlane) is a “sheep farmer” whose characteristics are at odds with everyone else inhabiting the Old American West. He’s a smart, rational guy living in a time where everything and everyone wants to kill you. He prefers to talk issues and resolve things through reason than shoot people at high noon. This causes him to lose his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried), who wants a more take-charge guy. In order to win her back (and under the tutelage of newcomer Anna [Charlize Theron]), Albert becomes more take-charge and discovers a side of himself he didn’t know he had.
The run time is nearly 2 hours but Ways to Die doesn’t feel long, just that the time was misused. There’s a bit within the first 10 minutes where Albert sums up the movie: how everything in the west is trying to kill you. He just lists them off like a laundry list and the joke falls flat as a result. A better way to approach it would have been to inter-cut some scenes Family Guy-style to show the audience how everything in the west kills you, not just tell them. Thankfully, the pacing and entertainment pick up when Albert has Anna to interact with and play off of.
Aside from singing the praises of Charlize Theron, Neil Patrick Harris also deserves special mention as Albert Stark’s foil. Their interactions with each other and the rest of the cast are some of the movie’s highest points…along with the satirical take on the Old West. Most of the best gags are the ones where they focus on the lifestyle and culture (why does no one smile or look happy in the old photographs?).
The jokes are classic MacFarlane. Scat jokes are prevalent but not overtly to the point of dominating the movie. The humor’s mostly crass, poking fun at hypocrites and bordering on offensive but most people going to see this film know what they’re going to be in for. Some jokes cross a line (why is there a runaway slave shooting gallery in 1882? What was the point of the “Parkinson’s is just another mysterious way of God showing us how much he loves us” jab?) but never to the point of making one regret purchasing a ticket to watch.
These issues prevent A Million Ways to Die in the West from being a great comedy. This does not make it a terrible movie but one that only squandered potential. This seems to be a vote against the movie but I strongly recommend it. It’s better to come from a movie thinking “it was good but they could have done this to make it better” than “that movie was terrible and it had been better off never being made!”