The reviews are in for Seth MacFarlane’s new comedy A Million Ways to Die in the West, and they’re not pretty. But comedy is unpredictable — the best ones sneak up on you, and your film editor found himself laughing fairly frequently at MacFarlane’s Western send-up, which is something of a surprise, since I loathe Seth MacFarlane. I’m not sure I’ve ever managed to sit through an entire episode of Family Guy (to say nothing of its even-less-inspired knock-offs American Dad or The Cleveland Show), and he was one of the worst Oscar hosts in recent memory (which is one stiff competition). But his first feature film, Ted, was an unexpectedly likable and funny piece of summer fluff, and while his new film doesn’t quite measure up to that one, it confirms that he’d be wise to continue on the filmmaking path. Particularly if it means less time spent making terrible television shows.
MacFarlane stars (and, rather tackily, gives himself top billing) as Albert, a cowardly sheep farmer in Arizona, circa 1882. He’s not a terribly cheerful guy; to put it bluntly, he despises the West, finding a pit of depression, despair, and endless threats to one’s already short life (hence the title). The one light in his life is his lady love Louise (Amanda Seyfried), who dumps him shortly after the film’s opening scene, a planned gunfight that he ends up buying his way out of (“I just feel like if we can talk this out…”).
She immediately falls into the arms of mustachery owner Foy (Neil Patrick Harris, very smarmy and very funny), just as the mysterious Anna (Charlize Theron) arrives in town. She and Albert strike up an immediate friendship, as she helps him try to make Louise jealous, and ultimately offers to help him learn to shoot, so he can take on Foy in a duel for Louie’s honor. Turns out, Anna’s a crack shot because she’s the (miserably unhappy) wife of Clinch (Liam Neeson), the most feared gunfighter in all the West, so when Anna and Albert’s friendship gets serious, he may finally have to fight for what’s important.
Most of A Million Ways To Die’s negative reviews compare it unfavorably to Blazing Saddles, which isn’t all that fair; this viewer found it more akin to something like the Marx Brothers’ Go West or Bob Hope’s The Paleface (in fact, Albert’s objection that “I’m not the hero, I’m the guy in the crowd making fun of the hero’s shirt” sounds like an encapsulation of the entire Hope ethos). MacFarlane isn’t aiming for the broad social satire and subversive brilliant of Saddles — he’s doing what Hope did, taking a contemporary wisecracker and putting him in the saddle, in a purposefully contrived “Movie Western” version of the Old West.
That said, as a performer, MacFarlane is no Hope, and A Million Ways to Die in the West is far from a great film. It’s full of pacing problems (it seems on the verge of ending for the entire back hour, and at 116 minutes, it’s a good 25 too long), it’s often crass merely for the sake of being crass (I’m not sure I ever needed to see that close-up of the sheep’s dick), and those with a penchant for scatological humor will surely have a better time than those of us lacking one.
But in spite of its considerable problems, A Million Ways holds the viewer’s attention, for the same reason Ted did: in spite of itself, it’s a likable picture. And that’s because Seth MacFarlane, while crude and irritating and frequently obnoxious as a human being, is (and get ready to gasp, because this is his deepest, darkest secret) a traditionalist. He cares about his characters and the story he’s telling. The smug, stream-of-consciousness, oh-look-how-subversive-and-shocking-I-am style of his cartoons simply can’t sustain itself for the duration of a feature film, and while he injects the expected (and often tired) doses of shit jokes and dick gags, it doesn’t seem like that’s why he’s there. The villainy of Clinch is played totally straight, as is the delicate relationship between Albert and Anna — Clinch’s scariness and the sweetness of Albert and Anna’s byplay establishes actual (no kidding) stakes, creating a momentum that sweeps the movie along, flaws and all.
Let’s be clear here: this recommendation is, at best, a reserved one, but if you’re in the right mood, A Million Ways to Die delivers some solid chuckles, a few memorable characters, a genuinely funny production number about mustaches, and further proof that Charlize Theron is a comic dynamo. But more than anything, it (like Ted) has a giving spirit and eagerness to please that’s altogether lacking from MacFarlane’s television work. And it actually earns some laughs, which is more than I can say for any of those terrible cartoons.
A Million Ways to Die in the West is out today in wide release.