“I’m not the hero. I’m the guy in the crowd making fun of the hero’s shirt; that’s who I am.” –Albert (Seth MacFarlane)
Some of the hatred that has been directed Seth MacFarlane’s hasn’t been fully justified.
Although he’s roundly criticized for the content of his numerous TV shows, MacFarlane as a public personality is in fact a far more interesting person, and anyone who ever saw him hosting the Comedy Central Roasts of both Donald Trump and Charlie Sheen actually saw that as a presenter, MacFarlane actually knew how to land a joke. At times he came off as smarmy, but in those situations, his bright and sarcastic personality absolutely worked, capable of witty zingers at a moment’s notice while still making sure the “atmosphere” of the program never once went into a quiet lull. However, when he watered everything down to host the 85th Academy Awards in 2013, that same smarmy charm fell flat, as each hosting gig — just like every new role or project an actor takes on — requires a different approach, and simply doing his usual schtick didn’t cut it, despite his own nomination for Best Original Song from his own mega-successful comedy hit Ted.
Emboldened by his success at the box office, MacFarlane decided that for his next passion project, he would make a comedy-Western, one that lead to his first major Hollywood starring role, playing across from Oscar heavyweights like Charlize Theron and Liam Neeson. While the hybrid of having goofy comedy being mixed with a Western aesthetic is undoubtedly a hard sell at the box office, the fact that the film was widely panned by critics didn’t help either, and A Million Ways to Die in the West, MacFarlane’s second directorial effort, wound up making less than one-sixth of what Ted made in terms of worldwide gross. There’s a reason for this.
As Albert, MacFarlane embodies the role of the audience’s anachronistic avatar, noting all the “fucked up” things he sees living in the 1800s, his town of Old Stump embodying every Western cliché there is to find. He is less than dignified during a pistol duel, leading his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) to hook up with noted Moustachery operator Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). Albert gripes about this to his best friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), who is also having his own troubles, not having sex before marriage with his girlfriend, Ruth (Sarah Silverman), who is a prostitute (this setup is one of the movie’s funnier running gags). Albert’s fortunes change, however, when he meets Anna (Theron), a renegade outlaw trying to break her way out of the crew of the murderous Clinch (Neeson), a notorious outlaw who … you get the picture.
Despite even hiring an acting coach for the film (which he notes in the commentary), it is in fact MacFarlane’s performance which ultimately sinks the film, because by playing the modern-day commentator on all the things “wrong” with living in this time period, the comedy that surrounds him feels wildly uneven, at times too self-conscious to work as meta-humor. By having Neeson play his scary gun-slinger with the “standard” Irish Neeson accent, his whole performance comes off as having little if any effort put into it. At other times, the humor employed is too base to work as gross-out entertainment, such as when Harris taking a crap in not one but two bowler hats prior to an important gun duel. Because MacFarlane essentially plays himself in the film, the audience never feels like there’s actual importance or genuine emotion being imbued with the characters or their motivations — it’s all schtick. While schtick can work for an SNL segment, sustained over the whole movie it becomes pretty unbearable.
While the same argument of a “transparent” performance of this nature can be leveled against Silverman, she at least understands comic beats far better than her director, so while Ribisi still gets in some nice aw-shucks kinds of moments, it proves to be Silverman and especially Harris who wind up walking away with the film’s funniest bits. Harris’ sheep-related puns and lording claim that he could provide Albert’s old girlfriend with “wrapped candies” as far more comedically satisfying conceits than virtually anything that comes out of MacFarlane’s mouth. Charlize Theron for the most part phones it in, but she does get some halfway decent zingers in there. As her too-bubbly appearance on the film’s commentary track proves, she is mainly doing this because she’s a big fan of MacFarlane’s Family Guy-styled humor, fawning all over his “dramatic” moments as they pop up, leaving her as the only person that finds value in them.
While MacFarlane and his writers are indeed able to get some halfway-decent sight gags in there (a photo taken at the fair causes an immediate explosion, leaving the photo subjects on fire which leads to them being shot for no reason — glorious madcap insanity, all), their finding humor in sheep penises and deliberately racist jokes about the Chinese again prove not only distasteful in this context but just not funny. Again, MacFarlane’s smarmy presence sinks so much of what could have been some great comic set pieces, his smugness unfortunately palpable to anyone who views the film. Even during the deleted scenes, MacFarlane tries his hand at improvising a lot of moments with Ribisi, and despite his muted presence, Ribisi proves to be a more talented improviser than his director is (doubly so in his scenes with Silverman during “Sex Night”).
While the bonus features here are all slickly made (and include a ten minute alternate hallucinatory drug sequence which is really worth seeing), they appeal only to hardcore MacFarlane acolytes, just as how the “unrated extended cut” adds precious little to a film already suffering in both the pacing and story departments, with so little stakes for the audience to actually care about.
Now with his second feature under his belt, MacFarlane is proving himself a halfway-decent director, able to come up with some solid sight gags, some decent scripts, and garner some good performances from his cast. (Admittedly, in this case, it’s from those with solid comic backgrounds, and definitely not from himself.) In the end though, by placing himself and his ego front and center, A Million Ways to Die in the West proves to be one of the most tired, remarkably unfunny comedies of recent memory. Perhaps MacFarlane will learn from his experiences and show some greater cinematic ambition on Ted 2, but with any luck, he’ll learn the biggest lesson of all: his talents are required behind the camera, not in front of it.