Correction appended, May 28, 2014
I like Seth MacFarlane — theoretically. His ingratiating personality reminds me of half the kids I knew at my Jesuit high school, but way smoother. Unlike most comedians and comic writers, he gives the appearance of having no inner demons to wrestle; his smile suggests a man at ease with himself and his outsize success. He’d be an excellent dinner-party guest, scrupulously attending to each of his table partners (10 minutes to the right, 10 minutes to the left) and, if you asked him, enlivening the cognac hour by singing a Jimmy Van Heusen standard in his big-band-vocalist baritone.
What I don’t find MacFarlane is funny. Family Guy and his other Fox cartoon shows tend to choke on the glut of their pop-culture references, and his gig last year as the Oscar host found him practically strangled by his smarty-pants tone. Now he births A Million Ways to Die in the West, a sagebrush comedy whose visual grandeur and appealing actors get polluted by some astonishingly lazy writing.
The lovely exception on MacFarlane’s résumé is Ted, which he directed and co-wrote, supplying the voice of the talking toy bear. That 2012 comedy got pretty close to profundity in its take on the joys and limitations of male bonding. It portrayed the friendship of underachiever Mark Wahlberg and his childhood pal Ted as an infantile attraction that could last a sweet lifetime. The laughs came, like Ted’s voice, from inside the characters. By my definition, that’s good comedy.
(READ: Mary Pols’ Review of Ted)
Made for a reasonable $50 million and grossing 10 times more at the global box office, Ted gave MacFarlane carte blanche for his follow-up. Ask almost any guy who’s made a hit movie what he wants to do next and the answer will likely be a western. That’s where Michael Cimino went after The Deer Hunter, Barry Sonnenfeld after Men in Black, Jon Favreau after two Iron Man hits and Gore Verbinski after three Pirates of the Caribbean blockbusters. The results — Heaven’s Gate, Wild Wild West, Cowboys & Aliens and The Lone Ranger — served to prove that the western is a genre cherished by all moviemakers and almost no current moviegoers. A Million Ways to Die fights that audience indifference — and loses.
MacFarlane plays Albert, a sheep farmer in Old Stump, Ariz., who’s good at nothing except getting into trouble. The opening Main Street gunfight, of three in the movie, shows Albert sort of talking his way out of being shot down by a bad guy — by promising to pay the varmint the money owed him. A few days later, Albert says he’s made good on the debt, though there’s no indication of where he got the dough he didn’t have before.
This is the first of countless examples 0f MacFarlane and his co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild (who also worked on Family Guy and Ted) tossing a plot idea in the air and, as if with a comic’s version of ADHD, not caring where it lands. (“Squirrel!”) Similarly, the opening narration, by a voice reminiscent of Sam Elliott’s in The Big Lebowski, has no reason for existing unless it is to pay off later. But it’s dropped, like so many of the film’s comic opportunities.
Albert loves the pretty Louise (Amanda Seyfried) for the same reason MacFarlane loves the western: because he’s always loved what he’s not suited for. But Louise has grown fond of Neil Patrick Harris’ Foy — his first name must be “F—ing,” since that’s what Albert usually calls him — who runs the town’s flourishing mustachery and sports a curlicue lip toupee that even Salvador Dalí would envy.
That leaves Albert available to save the life of newcomer Anna (Charlize Theron) in a bar brawl. Mysterious of provenance but willing to teach Albert marksmanship for his impending middle-of-the-movie showdown with Foy, Anna becomes attracted to the sheepman. But Anna is the restless wife and fellow traveler of the notorious bandit Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), who will invade Old Stump toward the end for the film’s third shootout.
The minor surprise is that the movie works pretty well as a western romance. MacFarlane, with the unlined, unremarkable good looks of a ’40s B-movie swain, plays nicely off Theron’s all-American (if native South African) glamour. Alone among the players, she projects a cagey warmth true both to her character and to a zillion tough but tender ladies from old westerns. But others in the cast have little to do. Giovanni Ribisi is the town virgin engaged to Sarah Silverman, the town whore — and they won’t have sex before marriage because “We’re Christians,” as the lustrously Jewish Silverman says twice. Maybe we didn’t get it the first time.
In a movie with a hundred rude sight gags, the few good ones can be attributed to the stunt team: a huge ice block that drops on a worker and crushes his head; a saloon cowboy who falls over dead, his face colliding with and overturning a tabletop. There’s an indecent laugh with a county-fair Runaway Slave Shooting Gallery — too soon, after 12 Years a Slave? — and an O.K. point-of-view shot of Albert getting urinated on by one of his sheep that would have worked better in 3-D. Even by these low standards, though, most of the stabs at humor miss their mark.
Matching Mel Brooks’ immortal Blazing Saddles only in its plethora of fart and poop jokes — one good one: a man with diarrhea shouts, “Ow! That came out of my penis!” — A Million Ways to Die both fills and wastes time with joke cameos by Christopher Guest, Gilbert Gottfried and Jamie Foxx as well as inside gags about his leading ladies. (An Indian language includes the phrase Mila Kunis — the co-star of Ted — and Anna asks Louise, “How can you be so blind with eyes that big?” Seyfried is the female lead in next year’s Ted 2.)
(READ: Richard Schickel’s 1974 Review of Blazing Saddles)
On The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon recently, MacFarlane read some fake newspaper headlines panning his movie. The Miami Herald: “Boy Blunder Farts His Way to Failure in Worst Western.” The New York Times: “A Million Ways Sophomoric Fart Fest; Grand Budapest Hotel Best Thing Ever in the History of Things.” It happens that The Grand Budapest Hotel is a wonderful movie, and A Million Ways to Die in the West is a sophomoric sophomore effort from an ingratiating actor-writer-director. Sometimes telling a joke on yourself is the truest, funniest, biggest laugh a likable guy can get.
Correction: The original version of this story misspelled the names of Barry Sonnenfeld and Alec Sulkin.