'A Million Ways to Die in the West'
Seth MacFarlane may not be the most ambitious or beloved comedy mind around, but he’s damn funny, consistent and prolific. That’s been enough to make him a huge success. Depending on your feelings for him, the new comedy Western ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’ is just as good or bad as you’ve considered any previous Seth MacFarlane joint to be.
The weird thing about MacFarlane is that even though he’s been at the center of pop culture for about a decade, the guy has really old fashioned tastes. If it were somehow possible to bring back Vaudeville, I’m sure he would have tried by now. Since that’s not going to happen, he’s gone and done the next best thing by making a Western. From the opening helicopter shots of Monument Valley, MacFarlane pays homage to the broadest and most glossy of 1950s Hollywood Westerns, and he does it well.
The plot comes straight of the generic Western playbook, with MacFarlane playing a loser sheep farmer in a nowhere town. He just lost his girl (Amanda Seyfried) to a smooth talking jerk with a spectacular mustache (Neil Patrick Harris, who else?) and everyone in town thinks he’s a chicken for screwing up a gunfight. All the pieces are in place for MacFarlane to go on the hero’s journey, which kicks off when a beautiful women (Charlize Theron) comes to town and teaches him how to shoot a gun, fall in love, and be himself. As an added bonus, she’s also married to a super evil cowboy played by Liam Neeson.
Yep, the movie is pretty by-the-numbers, but that actually works in its favor. MacFarlane isn’t an unconventional storyteller or an artist with a message. He’s a joke factory with hundreds of TV episodes worth of experience and a stable of writers who can hang laughs onto just about anything. Just like how ‘Ted’ took the manchild and magic-best-friend genre staples and spun filthy comedy gold out of them, ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’ takes old-timey Western conventions and adds hard R comedy to the genre’s bones. Every bodily function, ironic racial stereotype and pop culture reference in the MacFarlane comedy repertoire makes an appearance, and the laughs come in big heaping doses. The movie also has plenty of failed gags, of course, but this is one of those comedies where the bad jokes don’t matter because the next joke is never more than a few seconds away. Admittedly, the movie doesn’t reach the lunatic highs of ‘Ted’ (it has nothing with quite the punch of the ‘Flash Gordon’ cameo), but this flick also doesn’t have a movie-halting failed third act either. Ultimately, it balances out and both of MacFarlane’s directorial efforts are about even in quality.
As an actor, MacFarlane is surprisingly watchable. He has a self-effacing, nerdy, goofball charm that works well even if he’s outclassed by most of his supporting cast. Theron clearly has a ball raunching it up in an R-rated comedy and the fun she has is infectious. Neil Patrick Harris delivers one of his ironically nasty performances, and he’s gotten so good at this schtick that it’s hard to believe that he was once just that ‘Doogie Howser’ guy. Liam Neeson, Giovanni Ribisi, and Amanda Seryfried are all cast to type and they do it well. Sarah Silverman is somewhat wasted in a one-note role, but her natural comedic talent makes it feel like at least 1.5 jokes. Cameos fill the screen elsewhere. This is an undeniably well cast movie, which makes it work very smoothly as a joke delivery system.
MacFarlane might get a lot of hate from the comedy snob community, but compared to what Adam Sandler tries to pass off as mainstream comedy once a year, the guy is practically Andy Kaufman. ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’ is exactly the type of laugh-til-you’re-in-physical-pain-without-ever-challenging-your-brain mainstream comedy that should be the norm in Hollywood. It might not offer much more than laughs, but this type of comedy doesn’t have to. If you’ve got a sweet tooth for MacFarlane’s personal brand of good natured “offensive” comedy, then ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’ is the exact type of choke-on-your-popcorn gigglefest that you crave during summer movie season. Many more ambitious and intelligent comedies will come along this year, but few will have this many genuine laughs. Hopefully that Seth MacFarlane kid sticks with this comedy thing. He’s pretty good it.