Seth MacFarlane scales back on some of the crassness and plays up the charm in his latest feature film. The result is fitfully funny, a bit trifling, and paradoxically inoffensive.
Seth MacFarlane is a funny, smart guy, who seems to be in a constant state of eschewing his own intelligence in favor of crass (but hilarious) cheap laughs. You can tell watching his film Ted, or his TV show Family Guy, that he is smarter than the jokes he makes. Which is, of course, vital when it comes to gross humor; a dumb joke is always funnier if a smart person is telling it. In his newest film, A Million Ways to Die in the West, MacFarlane adopts what has now proven to be his standby persona: That of a witty, largely neurotic, longingly romantic twentysomething city fratboy. Although MacFarlane himself is 40, and Charlize Theron (his romantic interest) is 38, his character feels like a post-college bro-dogg through-and-through.
The central joke is that this neutered not-at-all-manly man has been placed in the wild west of Arizona in the 1880s. He wears his hats and vests like a hipster uniform, and cusses like a college student. He is affable and modern in his demeanor. This is not a through-and-through Western. This is MacFarlane riffing on Westerns.
It’s the casual, easy chemistry of the two leads that keeps A Million Ways to Die in the West afloat. The crass jokes are fitfully funny – some land hard, some whimper along, some are just outright gross – but its the actual, honest sweetness of the romance that keeps the affair grounded. Thank goodness. If there was no story, and we were treated to nothing but 115 minutes of nothing but poo jokes, this would have been insufferable.
I can’t tell of MacFarlane loves westerns or not. I suspect he hates them. A running gag throughout is that – as the title implies – people die with frightening ease in the West, and MacFarlane’s character Albert is constantly whinging about how easy it is to kick the bucket at the hands of, oh, gunslingers, snakes, falling blocks of ice, cholera, raging bulls, wolves, incompetent doctors, and vengeful clergymen. The other central joke is that the Wild West was perhaps the most dangerous, filthy, unpleasant place in the world to live. MacFarlane is clearly trying to take the piss out of the prairie romance of Sergio Leone, and bring into the light some of the more disturbing aspects of Western life. The playfully anti-Western jokes are occasionally funny (no one has ever seen a whole dollar up close before!), but mostly they sound like a neurotic city boy mocking an old way of life.
The story takes too much time, but it’s largely serviceable. Albert has just been dumped by his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried), and his chaste best friend (Giovanni Ribisi) is looking forward to finally sleeping with his own ladylove, a hard-working hooker (Sarah Silverman). Albert is encouraged to get back on his romantic feet and win Seyfried back at the behest of a passing stranger named Anna (Theron), who teaches him to shoot, and who is secretly the wife of the West’s most notorious gunslinger (Liam Neeson, playing it totally straight). Throughout the training and encouragement, Albert and Anna begin falling in love. Then there’s a scene where Neil Patrick Harris defecates in two hats. And then a sheep, possessed of a remarkably human-looking penis, urinates on MacFarlane’s face. And someone has a glob of semen on their face. Remarkably, no one puked.
Another one of MacFarlane’s trademarks is the over-ubiquity of pop-culture references. Often he’s very witty about the way he repurposes movies and TV shows for his own use, but much of the time, he seems to make a reference merely for the sake of it. In A Million Ways to Die in the West, MacFarlane is surprisingly mellow on the references. There were only four in the entire film. I counted them. This is a mercy; too many cutesy, winky anachronisms would have sunk the natural sweetness that carries all of the film’s appeal. The balance was struck.
Was it funny? It was funny enough. There are one or two howlers, many, many chuckles, and, well, a few hats filled with poop. The mustache song isn’t as clever as it could have been. Indeed, the entire affair, despite its foul language and forceful dirtiness, feels safe and inoffensive. MacFarlane is still sussing out his film career, and he seems to be on a good path. This one, however, is not yet his classic.