Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane’s first movie, “Ted” was mostly on-target but still showed signs of undisciplined, “Family Guy”-like self-indulgence.
MacFarlane’s second film, “A Million Ways to Die in the West” (again directed and co-written with “Family Guy” collaborators Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild) goes even further with this pattern, stretching out a handful of genuine (if crude) laughs longer than it should.
Whereas six or seven real chuckles in 22 minutes (the average running time of an episode of “Family Guy,” minus the commercials) isn’t bad, about the same number of laughs stretched out over an hour or more (“A Million Ways to Die in the West” has a running time of 117 minutes) can test the patience of even the most die-hard MacFarlane fan (of which, I’m not one).
Much of what fills in the gaps between the best (and “best” is relative here, as MacFarlane’s humor is of the “love it or hate it” variety) moments in “A Million Ways to Die in the West” are scenes involving some of the most vulgar language and situations ever committed to film. Very vulgar. Really, really vulgar.
But I digress...
MacFarlane, in his first major role as a human being (again —relative), plays Albert Stark, a cowardly sheep farmer in the Old West whose daily routine is to provide oddly anachronistic running commentary on the deplorable conditions of frontier living.
In Arizona in the 1880s, death can come at any moment from violence, disease, Indian attack, a minor injury, or even a trip to the doctor. Albert is the only one who seems to be bothered by how perilous the times are, and he riffs on it constantly to whoever’s within earshot, including his friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), Edward’s literal whore of a girlfriend, Ruth (Sarah Silverman), and Albert’s own romantic interest, Louise (Amanda Seyfried). He’s like a congenial stand-up comic who’s always “on.”
When Albert wimps out of a gunfight (for what we gather is not the first time), Albert loses Louise, who dumps him for Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), a manly fellow who operates the town’s moustachery.
Mustaches, or “moustaches” as they were spelled back in the day, were a pretty big deal.
Albert reasons the only way to win Louise back is to actually win a gunfight, and here to help him practice is his new friend Anna (played by Charlize Theron), a lovely, enigmatic sharpshooter who’s lying low while she waits for her outlaw husband (the ever-growling Liam Neeson) and their gang to rejoin her.
Without the restrictions normally imposed upon him in writing for television, MacFarlane is free to have each character — and I do mean each character — express every thought in the crudest, most blunt way possible, complete with 21st-century profanity and slang.
Once the shock value wears off however, the incongruity of Old West people swearing like sailors loses some of its “humor.”
Most of the gags that do work, like describing Ruth’s prostitute activities in embarrassingly frank, businesslike terms, are beaten into the ground through repetition. Even the musical number is uncharacteristically flat by MacFarlane’s usual “standards.”
In still other areas, the film is under-written and sloppy. The main character is poorly defined, being both a loudmouth and a timid pansy all at once. For all his skills as a voice actor, MacFarlane doesn’t quite have the physical presence or charisma to work as a leading man. His nemesis, the mustache man, is said to be a terrible jerk, but as far as we know the only “bad” thing he’s ever done is date Albert’s ex-girlfriend.
Liam Neeson is pure window dressing here, as his murderous outlaw character isn’t given anything funny to do — something that would have been an interesting change for Neeson, had he been allowed to parody in full the types of characters he typically portrays.
Some of the celebrity cameos are amusing, but others are so random, all they do is draw attention to themselves, slowing an already formulaic story down even further.
Neil Patrick Harris does do his cocky-charming thing to nice effect, and Charlize Theron stands out here as Albert’s eventual soulmate. Ultimately, there ARE some (very) funny moments here and there in “A Million Ways to Die in the West” that DO work and are quite good by themselves, but they come at the expense of being forced to (uncomfortably) wait through an indeterminately high number of poop, genitalia, and male body fluid-related “jokes.”
People familiar with MacFarlane’s brand of comedy may laugh at “A Million Ways to Die in the West” (although even they would enjoy it more, had the script been written more tightly and MacFarlane been more focused as a director), but all others may want to pass on this intentionally offensive mess.
“A Million Ways to Die in the West” is rated R for pervasive harsh profanity, copious amounts of vulgar humor and sexual dialogue, graphic violence (played for laughs), and gratuitous everything.
“A Million Ways to Die in the West” is currently playing in Rogers County at the Claremore Cinema 8. For showtimes, contact CC8 at (918) 342-2422.