Seth MacFarlane fires blanks in smutty western comedy

Have you heard the one about the farting cowboy? If not, go see A Million Ways to Die in the West, and Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane will tell it to you half a dozen times.
MacFarlane follows up his debut hit Ted by adding another string to his bow, or barrel to his gun – on top of producing, co-writing, and directing, he plays the lead in this western comedy. Unfortunately, A Million Ways… is high on Wild West clichés, low on jokes, and MacFarlane struggles to hold his own among a sterling cast.
The year is 1882, and MacFarlane plays Albert Stark, a lily-livered sheep farmer living in the frontier town of Old Stump. When he bottles out of a high noon shootout, his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him, and picks up with Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), the snide proprietor of the town’s “Moustachery”, and wearer of some very dastardly facial hair.
Meanwhile, vicious outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson) kills an old prospector for a huge nugget of gold, and sends his wife Anna (Charlize Theron) to lay low for a while in Old Stump with one of his cronies, posing as brother and sister.
Albert’s best mate is Ed (Giovanni Ribisi), a timid shoemaker in love with a bubbly prostitute (Sarah Silverman). Ed tries to rouse Albert from his slump, and the two friends get caught up in a bar room brawl. Albert manages to save  Anna from getting crushed by two brawlers falling from the upstairs gallery.
The two hang out together, and Albert impulsively challenges Foy to a duel at the town fair. Albert can’t shoot a barn door from the inside, but Anna uses her outlaw skills to improve Albert’s marksmanship. While training out in Monument Valley, they fall for each other. Clinch isn’t too happy about it when he rides back into town…
Plot-wise, that’s it. There is a kernel of a great idea here – in an early drunken rant, Albert riffs on how awful and deadly it is living on the frontier. The trailer shows a series of gruesome death sequences, and I was expecting something like a Wild West Final Destination. Sadly, that line of pursuit is rapidly dropped for a generic comedy western plot, as if the smart concept was too much hard work, and MacFarlane ran with an undeveloped script instead.

The biggest surprise is how tame the jokes are. I’m not a huge fan of Family Guy, because I think there is a nasty streak to MacFarlane’s humour. However, at its best the show was surreal, challenging and darkly funny.
Most of the gags in A Million Ways… are literally toilet humour. It’s not just the cowboys farting, every other bodily function gets a couple of scenes too. Cutting edge satire this is not – Mel Brooks covered gassy cowboys forty years ago in Blazing Saddles, and the sperm-dangling-from-the-face routine was so much better in There’s Something About Mary. This is crass, obvious and witless.
When the screenplay isn’t wallowing in poo jokes, MacFarlane and his buddies make the fundamental mistake of thinking people swearing is funny. Swearing can be hilarious, but you need something to back it up – take the brilliantly written but utterly foul-mouthed Bad Santa.
MacFarlane is a talented vocal performer, and his material works when he has a cartoon baby or CGI teddy bear to hide behind. His f-bomb laden banter and trademark offensive quips seem a little desperate and faintly sinister when coming from his own lips. His character is basically a 21st century guy making ironic observations about the Old West.
A Million Ways to Die in the West
That kind of thing worked for Woody Allen in Love and Death and Sleeper – but then Allen had carefully developed his wimpy, neurotic persona during years on the stand up circuit. MacFarlane’s character isn’t so clearly defined, and Albert just comes across as a whiney little girl.
Luckily for MacFarlane, he has populated A Million Ways… with a great cast, which labours gamely with the slack, mirthless script.
Theron brings some much-needed star wattage to the film as Anna.  She is sassy, likeable and laid back as she tries to drag MacFarlane through their lengthy scenes together. Neeson plays the baddie completely straight, bringing a sense of genuine menace to an underused villain.
Harris steals the show as the film’s only funny character, hamming it up deliciously as Foy. Seyfried does her best in a thankless role, while Ribisi and Silverman beat the odds, showing some honest chemistry despite being lumbered with the movie’s most unsavoury material. Wes Studi and Ryan Reynolds pop up in cameos, as does Christopher Lloyd, who provides just about the only big laugh.
Overall, A Million Ways to Die in the West seems like a vanity project gone hideously wrong. It is bad news for Seth MacFarlane when he’s written, directed, and acted in a film, and the three worst things about it are his writing, directing and acting.
On top of this, he has also turned the screenplay into a novel – something the literary world needs like cinema needs another Seth MacFarlane movie. Best suited to teenage boys and people who think seeing a sheep’s penis is comedy gold.


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