As you’d expect from a Seth MacFarlane movie, A Million Ways to Die in the West is full of tasteless, ribald jokes pushed right to the point of outrage. It has bodily function jokes (one of which involves a 10-gallon hat filled with 11 gallons of diarrhea), raunchy sex jokes (Sarah Silverman plays Ruth, a hooker who greets her meek boyfriend with a smear of sperm stuck on the side of her face), and various pop culture gags (Ryan Reynolds appears for approximately four seconds before he’s murdered). But the moment that made the audience at the screening I attended gasp audibly was another MacFarlane staple: the brazen racial joke.
In this case it’s a shooting contest at a county fair in the small Old West town where the film is set, a hand-cranked metal contraption called “Runaway Slave,” which features a crude painting of a watermelon-chomping mascot and a collection of small metal pickaninnies at which to shoot. Ostensibly, the joke sets up a surprise cameo right before the end credits, but it also exemplifies MacFarlane’s brand of humor. He’s the smart-ass kid who knows he’s saying something offensive but counts on being able to charm his way out of any consequences.
The joke is of a piece with A Million Ways to Die in the West‘s treatment of native peoples. When MacFarlane’s Albert is captured by an Apache tribe and about to burned at the stake, he reveals that he can speak their language fluently (the phrase he offers is “mil-a kun-dis”). He also shows off his smirking bad-boy-who-knows-better shtick in his treatment of women, who tend towards being either objects of smarmy derision (Ruth) or tepid straight-people serving as plot anchors and little else.
Charlize Theron plays one of the latter, a sharp-shooter named Anna, long married to a hateful outlaw, Clinch (Liam Neeson). New to the harsh town where Albert plies his trade as a sheep farmer, she inexplicably falls for him, teaches him how to fire a gun, and sets up a shoot-out with his romantic rival (Neil Patrick Harris), all before Clinch returns to wreck havoc. Anna, dolled up and wearing a fetching cowboy hat, seemingly could solve everyone’s problems if she simply used her spectacular shooting skills to take out Clinch, but formula dictates that Albert find his inner courage and solve the conflict. He’s a coward when we first meet him, but by film’s end, he’s willing to duel with the most vicious outlaw in the territory in order to win the woman he loves. For all of MacFarlane’s supposedly edgy humor, he’s making the most conventional three-act hero’s journey imaginable.
As a performer, MacFarlane is limited too. With his dark, beady eyes and clean-shaven guilelessness, he’s far too unschooled and wooden to craft a character with any sort of arc. In fact, it’s an essential component of his humor that we understand that Albert is always just MacFarlane himself, here wearing boots and a vest and pretending he doesn’t know any better. MacFarlane is constantly giving us the wink-wink to let us know just how deplorable he knows he’s being. But that quality turns against him in romantic scenes with Theron, where he suddenly wants to be taken as a leading man. Albert is such a nebbish that he’s useless as anything other than a narrator, even if MacFarlane tries to make the central cog in his narrative machine.
One could argue that despite his flaws, MacFarlane is one of the few mainstream comedians to take on assorted social taboos. But it’s also clear he has no intention of doing anything with this impulse other than make his audience gasp at his audacity. In this way, he’s every bit the huckster we see back at the county fair, shilling for miracle nerve potions before suddenly being gored to death by a runaway bull.