After twelve seasons of Family Guy and his first feature film, Ted, Seth MacFarlane‘s sense of humor is well-established at this point. He’s unlikely to lose the fans he has or garner new ones. His comedy is slightly off-kilter, gleefully offensive, and highly self-aware. MacFarlane’s latest film, A Million Ways to Die in the West, barely veers away from this formula, although it keeps the reluctant sentiment and plotting he displayed in Ted. Once again, it’s clear that his passion lies in cramming in as many jokes as possible, but Million Ways feels overlong despite being consistently funny. But its biggest problem is trying to build up a central character in a movie where its director/co-writer/star is constantly tearing everyone and everything else down.
Albert (MacFarlane) is a desperately unhappy sheep farmer living in the Arizona frontier town of Old Stump in 1882. His life gets worse when he’s dumped by his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) in favor of the town’s “Moustachery” owner Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). Although Albert has the support of his virgin friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and Edward’s prostitute girlfriend Ruth (Sarah Silverman), his life turns around when he meets Anna (Charlize Theron). Anna is so immediately enamored of Albert that in almost no time she decides to help him win back Louise. However, Anna is hiding the secret that the only reason she’s in Old Stump is so she can lay low until her husband, the notorious outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), comes to pick her up.
The movie revels in its anachronisms. Not only does everyone talk in a modern day cadence, but Albert is basically a 21st century man who’s been transported back in time. He’s the only person who can observe all the absurdities of the time period, although at other times he’ll lapse into being as confused as his 1882 compatriots like when he’s baffled by the notion of someone smiling in a photograph. Mostly, MacFarlane is pleased to skewer the Wild West over and over again, and do so through his particular brand of no-holds-barred humor.
Like his previous work, the comedy is all over the place and ranges from the innocuously silly like faking a fistfight in order to survive a brawl to the uncomfortably mean-spirited, and I won’t spoil the surprise on those. There’s also plenty of scatological comedy, and in a movie that’s comfortable with being juvenile, these were my favorite. But it’s still shocking to see how far MacFarlane is willing to go, and at one point he blatantly insults one of his actresses. It’s not a jab at her career or previous films. He outright makes fun of her looks, and kudos to that actress for going along with it.
Where Million Ways starts going sour is how MacFarlane is willing to take down almost everyone but himself. Albert’s greatest flaw is that he’s a bit of a coward, but even then he’s a sensible coward. He’d rather talk things out rather than have a gunfight. Beyond that, he’s supposedly sweet, kind, smart and plenty of other admirable qualities even though his personality is fairly bland due to a serviceable-at-best performance from MacFarlane. He’s a great guy because Anna is constantly telling us he’s a great guy, and the only reason she thinks he’s a great guy is because he’s not a callous murderer like Clinch. Her only real purpose is to build up Albert’s confidence so he can get back a woman who never thought much of him in the first place.
MacFarlane’s self-indulgence also extends to bloating his trifle of a picture far beyond what its runtime can sustain. As Family Guy fans know, MacFarlane’s M.O. is to drop in as many jokes as possible regardless of plot. There are jokes from Family Guy that I love, but I don’t remember the episode from which they came. Million Ways is pretty much a cartoon, and you can almost see how he would animate it. Because plot is an afterthought, MacFarlane doesn’t seem focused on tightening it up. We’ve seen other comedy directors do this, but it weighs heavier on MacFarlane’s movie because the story is a near-constant celebration of his main character. Why shouldn’t he get a comedy that’s almost two hours long? Albert’s the best!
Despite these glaring flaws, I can’t deny that I laughed constantly throughout the movie. It’s probably as immature and offensive as Blended, but it doesn’t pretend to have a family-friendly sheen. Million Ways wears its brand of comedy as a badge of honor. MacFarlane is completely up front with his audience, so even if you aren’t aware of Family Guy or Ted, there’s no bait-and-switch here. Within the first ten minutes there’s a joke about the setting, a joke about the scenario, and then a dick joke.
It’s somewhat surprising that a filmmaker can be so honest about his comedy, and yet isn’t willing to acknowledge the truth of how his female lead worships the protagonist after knowing him for all of five minutes. It doesn’t want to admit that just because Albert isn’t a bad guy, that doesn’t make him a particularly good one. MacFarlane can be incisive with his humor when he wants to be, but his main character should need more than the love of a good woman. A Million Ways to Die in the West had me laughing, but MacFarlane is never willing to laugh at himself.