A Million Ways to Die in the West
2 stars (out of four)
There may indeed be A Million Ways to Die in the West, as the title of Seth MacFarlane’s parody western asserts.
But there’s just one path to his infantile humour. It starts from a clever brain that ceased emotional development at age 12 and winds its way through to the orifice that emits the rudest noises and effluence.
This is the curious thing about MacFarlane. He knows how to make people laugh, as demonstrated in his Family Guy TV series, his movie smash Ted and in sporadic moments of his gig hosting the Oscars last year.
Yet he’s afraid to stray from knuckle-dragging comedy, being obsessed with jokes about farts, diarrhea and genitals that splat more often than they zing. And if they don’t work the first time, he’ll try and try again.
A Million Ways to Die in the West is a gross-out Gunsmoke, with MacFarlane directing an old-timey facsimile of his modern self in the lead role of Albert, a cowardly sheep herder in the Arizona of 1882.
Albert can’t abide the mindless brutality, appalling hygiene and constant danger of life in Old Stump, the tumbleweed town he reluctantly calls home: “Everything out here that’s not you wants to kill you.”
He gets no comfort or love from his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried), who breaks his heart by dumping him for moustachioed playboy Foy (the reliably funny Neil Patrick Harris).
Albert recklessly challenges Foy to a gunfight a week hence, even though the hapless sheep minder literally can’t shoot to save his life.
Enter Anna, played by Charlize Theron, a regular Annie Oakley who takes a shine to Albert and wants to show him how to cock his pistol. She neglects to tell him that she’s married to the outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), an infamous and jealous gunslinger who regularly contributes to that million-ways body count.
What should be an ensemble comedy is more of a showcase for MacFarlane, who also co-writes and takes production and music credits.
Your mileage may vary depending on your enthusiasm for his smirking frat-boy comedy. This is MacFarlane’s first live-action lead role (he voiced the potty-mouthed bear in Ted) and for my money he’s simply not great at being the leading man, coming off as more obnoxious than straight-up funny.
He’s outclassed by Charlize Theron, who shows off her comedy chops in a surprisingly big way and generally seems to be enjoying herself. MacFarlane deserve some credit for allowing Theron to upstage him, sometimes just with a knowing look. Maybe it’s his way of paying her back for mentioning her in his tasteless We Saw Your Boobs song at the Oscars.
The movie’s best lines are typically one-liners that rarely come from the lips of MacFarlane, who frequently oversells a joke when he isn’t merely spouting obscenities.
His running gag about how people never smile in old-fashioned photographs might have seemed hilarious on paper but it certainly isn’t on the screen. Ditto the overdone sideshow of Sarah Silverman’s energetic town prostitute bonding with Giovanni Ribisi’s bible-thumping virginal shoemaker.
Is it possible to overthink moronic humour? MacFarlane certainly seems to embrace this contradiction. He shows impeccable taste in how his movie looks (his DOP Michael Barrett makes Monument Valley a locale to die for) and also how it sounds. Yet the screenplay he penned with Family Guy/Ted hands Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild is slapdash at best.
If MacFarlane had spent as much time crafting jokes as he did writing the lyrics for the amusing title tune (sung by country ace Alan Jackson) and the catchy mid-film number The Mustache Song, A Million Ways to Die in the West would have been a much better movie.
Given his knack for singing — the guy truly is multi-talented — MacFarlane might have done better with following the musical comedy example of Paint Your Wagon rather than the slapstick of Mel Brooks for his western swing.