Critics may have been right to lambast A Million Ways, but they did it for all the wrong reasons.
No one expected A Million Ways to Die in the West to be great - Seth MacFarlane’s reputation and frat boy appeal preceded him. Film critics and bloggers were especially cognizant of this. Reviewers seemed to write about the film as if they didn’t even need to see it; they were convinced of their opinions before they walked in the screening room door. This reflects a larger phenomenon of critics leaving filmmaking out of their reviews and relying on pre-existing biases against filmmakers, genres, or actors to construct an argument for or against a certain film.
A Million Ways… was judged far too heavily on MacFarlane’s past work, rather than taking a look at the film on its own
Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways… was judged far too heavily on MacFarlane’s past work, rather than taking a look at the film on its own. After recounting a number of MacFarlane’s voice acting roles, one critic wrote, “The thing is, love or hate MacFarlane’s brand of humor, his smug, brotastic persona is basically the opposite of lovable. In A Million Ways to Die in the West, it’s a giant, self-created obstacle he doesn’t manage to overcome.” There’s no need to lambast MacFarlane, not to mention his two trusted writers, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, for previous work in offensive joke writing, affronts to minority groups, or their disappointing work on the 2013 Oscars. Crass writing and recycled jokes were to be expected from A Million Ways, yet reviewers expressed their frustration with them over and over. They told us what was wrong with the movie, but neglected to tell us why it was bad. Time would have been better spent focusing on MacFarlane’s first performance as a leading man. In terms of critiquing MacFarlane’s first starring performance, many have only managed to call it narcissistic, an empty critique that could likely be applied to anyone who has ever been featured in a starring role. This isn’t to say that critics shouldn’t be critical, but rather that they shouldn’t sensationalise their critiques with extraneous detail and should instead focus on film as an art form. MacFarlane is generally someone people love or hate. He continues to make what feels like dozens of projects a year and remains a household name. And yet, critics generally abhor him. His comedy style is considered to be lowbrow and inferior, and yet he continues to be everywhere all the time. It’s only natural that critics and audiences alike are tired of him. This was evident in the disappointing $17 million A Million Ways made at the box office on its opening weekend.
Now hear this: Our review of A Million Ways in the SR Filmcast
Reviews aren’t wholly responsible for the amount of people who turn up at theatres, but they certainly have some impact — otherwise, people wouldn’t be paid to write them. It’s impossible to know how critics impacted box office sales this weekend, but critic fatigue totally contributes to the overarching fatigue we’re feeling as a result of MacFarlane-mania. Rather than succumb to it, critics should be less dismissive and commit their arguments to proving why A Million Ways was a bad movie, rather than making MacFarlane, and filmmakers like him, seem like bad people. Matt Zoller Seitz, for one, reminds critics to focus on film as a form. He writes: “Movies and television are visual art forms, and aural art forms… Analytical writing about movies and TV should incorporate some discussion of the means by which the plot is advanced, the characters developed, the themes explored. It should devote some space, some small bit of the word count, to the compositions, the cutting, the music, the decor, the lighting, the overall rhythm and mood of the piece.“
Critics highlighted MacFarlane’s struggles and failures in writing and acting, which are not unique to A Million Ways
He’s right. Critics are ignoring what makes a film a film. A critic needn’t have experience as a director or editor, but they should acknowledge how the ‘nuts and bolts’ of filmmaking contribute to a film. They should therefore have an understanding of how they function. Instead, critics sensationalise their reviews with cultural biases, and likes and dislikes that aren’t unique to film. They highlighted MacFarlane’s struggles and failures in writing and acting, which are not unique to A Million Ways to Die in the West. They ignored the skeleton of this film and instead harped about its superficiality in humour, making the reviews themselves superficial. This isn’t a problem unique to Seth MacFarlane. The exhaustion that critics feel from Hollywood films is understandable, but their expectations for a film shouldn’t be overcome by what’s on the screen in front of them. If everyone let prior work of the creatives dominate how they see a film, then there would be no point in seeing a movie, let alone analysing it.
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All images: Universal