Critic's Grade: C+
As writer/director/producer and star of A Million Ways To Die In The West, Seth MacFarlane is all shit, no cattle.
Ten years ago, just after Family Guy's second cancellation and shortly before its creator met the devil at the crossroads, a few of the aging boy-animator's eventual ambitions could have been surmised. He would, of course, build a cartoon kingdom upon mean-spirited taunts, unreconstructed sitcom plot lines, and poorly-drawn/vaguely-sketched characters. His directorial debut Ted would earn about $550 million worldwide for pairing Mark Wahlberg with a foul-mouthed toy bear. His album of jazz standards would win chart success and a Grammy nod. His first notable performing gig would be as host of the Academy Awards. A starring role in his own major motion picture must be the next logical progression, but as a romantic leading man? In a Western?
Just how much was Seth MacFarlane's soul worth?
There's some track record of animators using the drawing board as springboard to grander ventures. The South Park creators tried their hand at live-action, and Walt Disney hardly shied away from the camera. Importantly, though, they knew their limitations. With A Million Ways To Die In The West, MacFarlane has assembled a vanity project on par with Uncle Walt playing lead in The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. MacFarlane simply hasn't the chops to carry a movie and only drops the smarmy posturing familiar from his standup when diving into boyish flirtation. Against all odds, there's a sweetness to his lovelorn desperation that could perhaps be coaxed into a workable performance as, say, romantic foil midst a mumblecore ensemble, but he's a continual embarrassment leading a production of this scope, and hardly helped by his own direction.
In a tone-deaf flourish of egotism, Macfarlane's sheep farmer Albert Stark is always the smartest guy in the room and, save the women who love him (Amanda Seyfried, Charlize Theron), the most attractive. More awkwardly, he seems the toughest as well—it's possible MacFarlane never shares the screen with Liam Neeson's woefully-underused gunfighter villain—and this is a significant flaw for a film determined to treat its rejiggered plot line with grave seriousness. Although written with Ted collaborators, long stretches of the film crawl by without so much as a smile. While the smattering of insensitivity swag should likely appease his core constituency of bros/gamers and their lovers/apologists, anyone expecting his trademark indulgence of an eterna-tweaking id should prepare for overextended scenes presumably filmed just so Theron could offer our star endless takes of the girlfriend experience.
Thankfully, the western setting proves as amenable as any other for the hallmarks of MacFarlane's wit—split-second visual bits (unsheared sheep-turned-balls of fluff walking into walls), open-mic routines (have you ever noticed the inherent stupidity of people born to the 19th century?), and troubling stereotypes extended to illogical conclusions. Besides playing rapt audience for MacFarlane's standup, Sarah Silverman and Giovanni Ribisi exist only to beat into the ground a one-note joke about the happiest of whores' refusal to sleep with her long-suffering virgin boyfriend before marriage.
As ever, a decent percentage of the gags beg a chuckle, and some of the more inventive bits deservedly leave crowds roaring. We don't have many writer-directors capable of both finely tuned lines perfectly thrown away and the broadest of gags. If MacFarlane is still somewhat more comfortable bending ideas through animation, the sneering ridiculousness of Neil Patrick Harris proves more deliriously unreal than any cartoon, and he leads the saloon crowd through a show-stopping ode to the pleasures of a mustache that even the fiercest MacFarlane-phobe will enjoy. It's not that the jokes have suffered. There are just too few of them, and they require an especially strong stomach.
A Million Ways To Die is a shit movie. The feces overflows. There's a reason Family Guy remains MacFarlane's clearest success: Its two most popular characters, a toddler intellectual and an infantile brute, come closest to embodying the peculiar core of his humor. If most comedians depend upon a prolonged adolescence, Seth MacFarlane seems to have never been a teenager, and that singularly bloodless obsession with bodily fluids is both kinds of funny. The messes we make interest MacFarlane. Where Mel Brooks exaggerated a childlike gusto seemingly ignorant of proper behavior, MacFarlane digs deeper into all that's sublime and revolting about mammalian enlightenment. Lord only knows what he'd do with the next Planet Of The Apes.
Laughs are laughs, of course. The picture's best gag—SPOILER…ew…ALERT: A character's mid-gunfight diarrhea is employed for maximum shock value and then extended with balletic delicacy—transcends Blazing Saddles' iconic beans-fueled campfire toots, and an all-too-brief peyote delirium suggests the promise of MacFarlane's singularly damaged worldview. It's not a vision that plays well with others, though. Mel Brooks' shtick isn't necessarily any more clever or artful, but that shameless, nonstop mugging enabled his best films to catch lightening in a bottle by observing current racial inequities through a rawhide prism. MacFarlane's talents of wringing laughs from uncomfortable subjects might be are no less powerful, but it just feels icky within the surrounding haze of smug nihilism.
This movie's a barely modernized retread of the oldest-fashioned slapstick vehicle. Shove Bob Hope or Jerry Lewis under a 10-gallon hat as thoroughly modern milquetoast out of place in the big bad West but inevitably forced to drum up an inner courage and save the day. By the '80s, we'd grown so distant from the original source material that Chevy Chase and Steve Martin were parodying the existence of Westerns as much as the actual old west, and City Slickers, which imagined Billy Crystal's dude ranch holiday as the furthest flight of believable valor, ended the genre with a decided whimper. Walking in their bootprints, MacFarlane—whose Oscars hosting gig now makes some small sense—copies plot but not premise, and the insistence upon always demonstrating his character's innate superiority against all comers undercuts any rooting interests and flattens the natural story arc.
The underlying engine driving these movies is a central tension between myth and practicality. Iconic Western figures swimming against society's currents are as easily rendered pathetic as heroic, but the best comedies always acknowledged both truths. It is, perhaps, the western's signal plot line and a tragedy when told straight. As titular hero of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Jimmy Stewart's Ransom Stoddard survives his duel, marries the prettiest gal and winds up senator all because of an affinity for the moral compromise required by an encroaching civilization. He wins because modernity prizes his sort of weakness, and the realization haunts him ever after.
A Million Ways To Die In The West never intended to be that kind of picture, but MacFarlane still dons the trappings of unabashed horse opera without any actual interest in the conflict behind such stories, nor, wearyingly, any understanding of how to film narrative tension. If impending dangers aren't foretold, a man riding a horse just isn't all that interesting, and, where a genuinely earnest picture might have used occasional jokes to lighten the tone, overlong and misguided forays into action and romance only saps a comedy's anarchic momentum. Mel Brooks' films reveled in their own egotistical celebrations of self, but he knew that his only chance at boudoir scenes depended on a mastery of bathroom humor. Aside from an open canvas for racially charged riffage and shit-scattered landscapes, what other purpose could a cowboy movie possibly serve this late date?
This is the West, sir—to paraphrase the advice given Stoddard near the end of Liberty Valance—when the legend turns to farts, print the legend.