It is now certain: I do not find Seth MacFarlane funny. This had been a suspicion based on the trailer for Ted (2012) and his hosting chores on the Oscars. (They certainly were a chore for me.) His latest effort (if any actual effort was taken), A Million Ways to Die in the West, has more than confirmed those suspicions. It isn’t just that the movie is amazingly unfunny. (I chuckled once.) It isn’t even that it’s at least 30 minutes too long for its own good, or that its shock value gags haven’t been shocking for 40 years. (Just because an extended diarrhea gag elicits an “ewww” doesn’t mean it shocked anyone.) No, it’s the arrogance and narcissism of the whole thing that does it in for me, and it’s what sinks the film in a broader sense.
I suspect that MacFarlane thought he was making the new Blazing Saddles (1974). The truth is he’s made the new Shakiest Gun in the West — Don Knotts’ 1968 rehash of Bob Hope’s The Paleface (1948) — except MacFarlane’s picture isn’t even up to the none-too-exacting standards of the Don Knotts movie. The essential element of the star vehicle, Wild West comedy is that it’s built around the comedian’s established movie persona. That’s fine if the star is Bob Hope or Don Knotts or Groucho Marx or W.C. Fields. Problem here is that MacFarlane has no movie persona. He’s a guy who stands around and makes obvious observations designed to show how much hipper he is than everybody else — and in this case, how awful life in the old West was. This is pretty thin as the basis for a two-hour movie — unless, of course, you find MacFarlane’s shtick endlessly funny. If the prospect of seeing some poor boob gruesomely crushed under a gigantic block of ice followed by MacFarlane remarking, “That went south so fast,” strikes you as funny, this is your movie. You’ll get 116 minutes of this sort of thing — over and over.
Such plot as there is has MacFarlane playing an inept and cowardly sheep rancher named Albert, who gets dumped by his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) in favor of the owner of the local “moustachery,” which — apart from the saloon and the whorehouse — seems to be the only prosperous business in town. (Since a later gag has the populace being astonished by the mere sight of a dollar bill, one wonders who is spending money in these businesses.) But then Anna (Charlize Theron) comes to town and takes up with Albert, neglecting to tell him that she’s married to a merciless gunslinger (Liam Neeson). Apart from teaching Albert how to shoot and providing a new romance for him, Anna seems to exist to tell us — numerous times — that Albert is a “good man,” which, I guess is necessary, since the film offers no evidence of this otherwise. It’s basically Nerd-Empowerment 101 (Albert calls himself a nerd) to have the hottest woman in the movie see the main character’s inner goodness, but when words are being put in her mouth by the nerd himself, it’s off-putting in its narcissism.
Adding to the problems is the film’s astonishing sloppiness. The staging is largely amateurish. Gags are built up without payoff. When Mel Brooks had his sweeping Western panorama end up with Count Basie and His Orchestra playing in the middle of nowhere, MacFarlane’s panoramas are just there as window-dressing. There’s a lengthy scene where MacFarlane and Theron remain very still and talk without moving their mouths so a marauding rattlesnake doesn’t strike — again no payoff or even resolution. The scene just stops. (The snake perhaps got bored and left. An understandable response.) When there are gags, they’re repeated many times, and familiarity does not improve them. But since MacFarlane’s comedy seems to consist of belaboring the obvious by remarking on it, repeating the same jokes is perhaps to be expected. For me, the film’s major accomplishment lay in making Maleficent look ever so much better. Rated R for strong crude and sexual content, language throughout, some violence and drug material.