Seth MacFarlane is inspired. That much cannot be denied. While the crassness of much of his humor, the general disregard to tact that he shows in execution, and the overly obvious determination with which he must do a 360 turn on every emotionally resonant moment in his work just to display how dissenting he is to humanist expectations are all things people can easily hold against him, MacFarlane in the end must be contended with because he is well versed in his craft, and he is genuine in what he aims to do. This is essentially why MacFarlane’s latest film, A Million Ways to Die in the West, is such a major disappointment.
As a writer (and of course, the creator) of “Family Guy”, Seth MacFarlane established himself off the bat as a good storyteller. In the first 4 to 5 seasons of the show, not only were the jokes funny, the episodes actually had really engaging plot-lines to them. In the span of only a 30 minute program, many episodes slyly transitioned from one theme to the next before you even knew it, and when going back, you realized the central story of the episode at the beginning was completely different from that at the end (this was actually brilliantly poked fun at in a Family Guy episode itself: “Mr. Saturday Knight” – Season 3, episode 9… look it up). This very difficult feat can only work if the story is engaging enough that the audience doesn’t pick up on it, and “Family Guy” did this rather flawlessly for close to 5 years (before, you know, the show started to suck really bad).
Keeping all this in mind, and of course the heavily flawed but still successful Ted, we look at MacFarlane’s latest pet project. It’s no surprise that MacFarlane decided to do a parody of Hollywood Westerns… they combine his 3 favorite things: historical context, cartoonish violence, and Mel Brooks (remember Blazing Saddles**?). This is basically satire on a silver platter ready for MacFarlane to devour at will. It pained me how good this movie could have been because it certainly played thematically to Seth’s strengths, and the premise itself – with the lack of modern medicine and safety standards, literally anything can kill you in the West – was comedy gold. So why did MacFarlane decide to center his entire movie on the most pedestrian, boring, drab, and predictable plot known to man? As I said with my review of Godzilla, nothing I say here about the plot of this movie will be considered a “spoiler” because it is so cliche and conventional, even NBC’s weather-team could predict it ahead of time with 100% accuracy. Some poor down-on-his luck cowboy who sucks at being a cowboy (MacFarlane) and who was just recently dumped by his better half (Amanda Seyfried) mopes around. Meanwhile, a ruthless outlaw (Liam Neeson) and his much more loving and merciful but equally skilled with a gun wife (Charlize Theron – wait… she actually said yes to this movie? Wow, Monster really was a “once-in-a-lifetime” thing wasn’t it?) enter the scene, but split ways. I can see you already nodding your head saying “I bet the wife ends up falling in love with MacFarlane and teaches him how to be a better cowboy”. See how in tune you are with Hollywood’s total lack of originality? Now, unlike Godzilla, this movie doesn’t have any riveting special effects and HALO jump scenes to keep you distracted from how utterly hackneyed its storyline is. Did Brian Griffin write the script for this movie?
All this mediocrity is luckily, for what its worth, littered here and there with some pretty funny jokes, the typical acute observations of genre trope that Seth MacFarlane does best – the most endearing of these is the recreation of 1800s farmers/wives photographs, bland emotionless, and pretty much all the same. The two most entertaining characters end up being Sarah Silverman’s local whore Ruth and her virgin boyfriend Edward (played by Giovanni Ribisi). They, for all intents and purposes, are the Brian & Stewie of this movie. The two characters who you keep wishing were actually the central figures of the story because their dichotomy and chemistry is so much more *ehrm* fertile. Instead, we get the monochromatic Seth and Charlize Theron awkwardly dragging their tongues through tedious and eye-rolling teeny-bopper romantic dialogue (aren’t they both like, 40??). Let me just say for the record, Seth MacFarlane should never act as the central character for a film ever again (unless he’s doing voice-over for a teddy bear). His facial expressions, mannerisms, everything is very mediocre, and at best, belongs on a TV variety show, not in a feature film… and he had the audacity to keep the camera on himself for extend periods of time just to show us how incapable he is of sustaining emotion in a pinnacle moment. Compare that to Milos Forman’s decision to shoot Jack Nicholson’s 3 minute silent interlude in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. Forman will tell you, you only keep the camera on an actor who can own it for more than 5 seconds, otherwise… CUT AWAY!
Overall, the film felt like it was simply an excuse for MacFarlane to strut his ‘stand-up-comedy’ act of making fun of the lack of modern medicine in the 1800s West, while also having the visual accommodation to do some of those good ol’ Family Guy-style cutaway gags. Needless to say, if this was a Family Guy episode, it might be a perfect showcase for what MacFarlane is so good at. Instead, A Million Ways to Die in the West just exposes more of Seth’s flaws with the much longer-duration and ambitious medium of cinema.
(In regards to Blazing Saddles mentioned in the review):
**Now, I’ll be the first to admit, Mel Brooks’ attempt at this kind of parody found me wanting… it’s not that it wasn’t good or landmark in its achievement, but does anybody else agree with me that City Slickers was so much more shrewd, witty, and searingly (refreshingly) satirical without having to use the easy route of cheap racial comedy? No? Ok then… let’s move on.