Lots of setup, some payoff.
A Million Ways to Die in the West is a new comedy/western from Seth MacFarlane (Ted). The plot loosely follows MacFarlane's character, Albert, a nice but cowardly sheep farmer who is tired of the dangers of living in the West in 1882. After his girlfriend Louise, (Amanda Seyfreid) leaves him for a more macho suitor, Foy, (a mustachioed Neil Patrick Harris), Albert must learn how to shoot from newcomer, Anna, (Charlize Theron) so that he can challenge Foy to a duel and win back Louise.
After the success of MacFarlane's 2012 directorial debut, Ted, he was given a lot more freedom in making his second film. He chose a Western, a genre which is notoriously appreciated by filmmakers, but not as often by audiences. While his nostalgia for classic Western's comes across, and parts of the movie succeed as a pleasant romantic Western mixed with modern sensibilities, much of MacFarlane's signature comedy misses the mark.
The film takes the dirty jokes as far as you would expect, with plenty of gross out gags making full use of the R-rating. Most of the fart jokes fall flat, but a few have enough of a twist to entertain. Sarah Silverman has a lot of fun delivering some pretty obscene dialogue as a prostitute that is waiting until marriage to have sex with her boyfriend because she's Christian. MacFarlane knows how to push the gross-out gags as far as possible without crossing the line.
The jokes that work most consistently are the violent gags, throwing you off guard with sudden, excessive gore. In one scene, a racially charged gag came out of nowhere, but it was one of the most effective, sharp jokes in the film. Much of the humor is cheap, however, every once in a while a smart or bold joke will catch you off guard. The other consistently amusing parts are the series of cameos thrown in. Some of these have been spoiled in recent trailers, but the familiar faces brought in add a level of randomness and self-awareness that really energizes the movie.
The visuals are impressive, and MacFarlane was clearly working on a big budget. It seems excessive, however, when you think about how much trivial things cost such as CGI sheep in a hallucination scene. Still, some of the cinematography of the 1882 Arizona desert is beautiful.
The weakest aspect of the film is its pacing and story structure. While Ted had similar script issues, they are magnified here, as one narrative arc wraps itself up neatly before an entirely new conflict is introduced in the last third of the movie. Liam Neeson's outlaw character (arguably the main antagonist) does not become relevant to the plot until after Albert has already confronted a different rival. This lack of focus makes for uneven pacing. The movie has lots of setups, but a significant lack of satisfying payoffs. Some plot threads go nowhere, even if they have huge comedic potential.
Overall, A Million Ways to Die in the West offers plenty of low-brow laughs, and a few smart one too. It doesn't always follow through and deliver on the potential of its own comedic setups. It is a random, plotless, but entertaining romantic Western comedy
A Million Ways to Die in the West comes out May 30, 2014.