"Ladiesandgentlemensteprightup, do I have something special for you! Look around, look around. Want a smart self-aware comedy? How about a fresh new Blazing Saddles? And Liam Neeson being funny! And how about Seth Macfarlane finally delivering on his potential? Yessir, everything here looks exactly like something you want. So buy it up--don't look too close--just slug this tonic down. And when you're twisting and groaning in your seat for two whole hours, you'll wonder how so much promise could turn on you so quick. But I've already got your money, and I'll be long gone…"
While we don't see anyone die from health tonic poisoning in A Million Ways to Die in the West, there is a bit about the list of ingredients therein: "Alcohol, cocaine, morphine, mercury with chalk and red flannel." Everything in this Wild West parody is lethal - the medicine, the weather, the people, the food, the animals. The cast seems like it should be rich enough with Oscar-winners and star power to provide a cure: Seth MacFarlane, who also wrote and directed, is the humiliated sheepherder; Amanda Seyfried is his unsatisfied ex; Charlize Theron is the mysterious and capable woman who offers to help McFarlane win his girl back; and, of course, there's Liam Neeson as the threatening (and unfunny) bad guy, Clinch Leatherwood.
Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant already proved that Neeson can be used for dark hilarity, but none of that is reflected here. In fact, everything here has been done better somewhere else. Do you want to see a movie about a guy learning to change in order to woo the wrong girl, then meeting the right one along the way? Watch Better Off Dead. _Do you want to watch a good, smart parody of old-time cowboy movies? You've already seen Blazing Saddles, so watch Rustler's Rhapsody. It sends up the Western genre conventions with sex, drugs, sheepherders, music, murder, and dirty drunks with great jokes and fun actors. Do you want to see gritty western life? Watch _Deadwood or Hell on Wheels.
Even though most comedies don't tend to do much cinematically, A _Million Ways to Die in the West _is especially clumsy. It's clear that Macfarlane-the-director (when was the last time you saw a film benefit from having the producer, director, writer, and lead actor be the same person?) has seen a lot of John Ford, even filming in the Monument Valley and spending money on lots of helicopter shots of horses racing across the landscape. But those imitative shots just make the rest of the flat rom-com-style composition even more disappointing.
It's small, but A Million Ways to Die in the West gets one thing right: It's really hard to shoot a pistol. When Theron is teaching the bumbling sheepherder how to shoot, he points out that if only he can "get off sixteen shots" before his opponent fires one, he has a chance. At a distance of more than seven yards, that would give him a better average than the NYPD.
The rest of the movie is untruths that make me seriously doubt Macfarlane's commitment as a satirist. They make so much of the dangers of the West, as if we've come so far since--or are even heading forward. Just this week people are threatened with being shot over cribbage, corn, and training wheels. Diseases like whooping cough, gonorrhea, measles, mumps, and tuberculosis are coming back in a big way. Hypocrisy, conservative religion, and county fairs are all parts of daily life.
When I think of aspects of life that the internet should have solved by now, right at the top are "con men" and "bad comedies." Both exist today, even when the value of their promises can be cross-checked, their magic dispelled in mere seconds. But con men (and ladies of course - ever heard of Jeanne de la Motte?) come in all stripes, and absolutely flourish today, from the homeopathy peddlers and anti-vaccine advocates to the truly holy. Bad comedies continue unabated, as well. We want comedy so badly that we are willing to look past our rational faculties. Which means that there are suckers everywhere, and even a willing sucker in each of us, wanting to believe that great comedies are a dime a dozen, and that maybe, just maybe, this email prince is really going to wire us those millions.
Whether they actually deliver or not is secondary--it's the promise we're paying for.