When the creative force behind The Family Guy, American Dad and The Cleveland Show, Seth MacFarlane took to the cinematic lens with Ted, it was a surprisingly fun ‘stoner-tastic’ tale of a man child (Mark Wahlberg) and his thunderbuddy Ted (voiced by MacFarlane) and their pot fuelled adventures. Ted translated to an impressive turn at the box office and hey presto MacFarlane gets another shot to take his very identifiable brand of pop culture whimsy and crass humour to your multiplex. This time turning his attention to the American West. However with a film thats title includes the phrase ‘A Million Ways to Die’ – it seemed that those intent on tearing the film to shreds had a pile up of pithy zingers waiting. It became apparent as the first impressions began to filter throughout that they predominantly shared the qualification/prologue to their opinion that they were “not a fan of Seth McFarlane.” Phrases like ‘vanity project,’ ‘self indulgent’ and ‘narcissistic’ have been branded all over A Million Ways to Die in the West from the outset. What changed between his last outing and this one? Is it the premise? The execution? The expectation? The man? Let’s discuss.
The Western is a truly unique American art form. While other countries adopted the form and translated it to their different frontier periods of history (The Proposition) or simply picked up the production and took the American West to other countries (Sergio Leone’s ‘Spaghetti Westerns’) it’s a period that filmmakers visit and revisit to reflect upon modern society. It makes sense for almost every American filmmaker to want to visit the West if their career affords them the opportunity. Let’s address the glaringly obvious, you really can’t say comedy and western in the same sentence together without discussing arguably the greatest comedy of all time; Blazing Saddles. Mel Brooks’ unfairly hilarious 70s masterpiece continues to be a benchmark for brave satire and explosive silliness. The premise, with MacFarlane playing the neurotic Albert Stark baring witness to the defying regular existence seems to be ripe for mockery. Perhaps it was the execution.
The foundation story for AMWTDITW by MacFarlane and his co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild has a very similar accessible rom-com arc to the one that anchored the craziness of Ted. Stark, a sub par sheep farmer is dumped by his lady Louise (Amanda Seyfried) for the town’s ‘tached up and cashed up Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). As he’s wallowing in self pity a badass bombshell Anna (Charlize Theron) comes to town and befriends Albert and helps him try to win her back. However, as they grow closer Anna’s husband and meanest killer in the West, Clinch (Liam Neeson), rides into town and takes offence to having his grass cut. While that synopsis seems rather conservative, it absolutely shines when MacFarlane and writers Sulkin and Wild apply the lens of modern observational humour to the rough living West. Hokey medical practises, casual association with death and justice in the thoroughfare instead of the courthouses is ripe for a neurotic out-of-time truth sayer like MacFarlane’s Albert. Also MacFarlane and co have a certain knack for injecting the most peculiar nonsense into the tapestry of their films that either drop like canisters of laughing gas or clang like a frying pan on a hard floor. Charlize Theron’s Anna is such a naturally funny comedic foil and love interest to the piece. It’s extremely natural and she makes MacFarlane feel funnier because of the contrast between the characters. Sarah Silverman’s Ruth, the working girl, is just the perfect amount of filthy in front of her extremely christian fiancé, Giovanni Ribisi’s Edward. Like any two hour comedy, it’s often difficult to sustain hilarity for such a sustained period.
Ted was surprisingly good, partly because audiences expected that MacFarlane’s bent sense of humour is perfectly suited to a stoner man-child hanging out with a bear. Ted was successful, but I did not observe people frothing at the mouth for AMWTDITW, in fact it was just a kind of pleasant, ‘oh here’s another hour or so of inappropriate humour to while away the time.’ Perhaps the towering shadow of Blazing Saddles had audience members hoping for MacFarlane to give our generation something that seminal. If that was the case walking in, you’re an idiot. Brooks is possibly one of the funniest humans that’s ever existed (the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony don’t lie), and it was co-written by one of the world’s greatest living stand-up comedians Richard Pryor. As much as one could love MacFarlane, you must concede that he has not, and may never, hit the heights of those two gentlemen.
Let me say that I’m not the biggest fan of Seth MacFarlane. I absolutely adored how fresh his absurd voice was in the realm of animated comedy at a time when The Simpsons and South Park were both experiencing creative rough patches. However like any product that becomes a commodity, the style of Family Guy has well and truly been mined to death. I didn’t particularly like his stint at the Oscars BUT that’s because the Academy’s choice for Oscar’s host is a) usually very poor and b) played without an edge. That said though, I thoroughly enjoyed Ted. There’s also a lot of comedian writer/directors that star in their own projects: Louis C.K, Mel Brooks, Ricky Gervais, Woody Allen to name a few. For a first outing, infront of the lens in person, MacFarlane was quite competent.
While there are certainly some flaws in the execution, and it’s only MacFarlane’s second go round in cinematic comedy, there’s a lot to chuckle about in A Million Ways to Die in the West. Note to self ensure that you don’t do a song about boobs at the Oscars followed by a film with the words “Million Ways to Die” in the title.
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Seth MacFarlane
Written by: Seth MacFarlane & Alec Sulkin & Wellesley Wild
Starring: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Liam Neeson, Giovanni Ribisi, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman, Christopher Hagen