Say what you want about Seth MacFarlane (creator of Family Guy, executive producer of Cosmos),that man can write a “guy pooping into a hat” joke that’ll really make you think. I’m not being facetious here. In his newest attempt at live action storytelling, A Million Ways to Die in the West, a character literally poops into a hat and I was actually left thinking, “Why can’t the rest of the movie be like this?”
I’m not a lover of scatological humour, and I’m sure I’ve seen someone poop into a hat before, so it’s not like I’m turning up my nose like a snooty high-brow comedy connoisseur muttering “Well I never.” But when a man shits into a hat here, something is different. It somehow feels special, and I laughed where I’d normally roll my eyes. It’s a shitting into a hat joke that really spoke to me.
MacFarlane is responsible for this, and it should be a point of pride for him. He’s the star, director and co-writer of A Million Ways, and his strong handle on physical comedy shines through almost miraculously. There are some big laughs in this movie, and most of them are wordless. It’s a detail highlighted by the stark contrast of some dialogue-heavy scenes played too seriously for what’s essentially an unremarkable parody western that somehow got green-lit for release in 2014 when it feels out of its own time. Again, that’s probably more of a testament to MacFarlane’s clout.
MacFarlane is Albert: a sheep farmer on the receiving end of an unceremonious breakup. He takes things hard, moping about in existential crisis mode, anachronistically commenting on how ridiculously horrifying life on the American frontier was in 1882 while simultaneously living there. His now ex-girlfriend hooks up with the mustachioed Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), which makes things worse. As a sheep farmer Albert can’t afford to maintain any sort of class-indicating facial hair, and Foy therefore serves as a mirror into MacFarlane’s character’s masculine self-image issues.
Albert isn’t at the bottom of the masculine pecking order though, his best buddy Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) is a virgin in a loving long term relationship with Ruth the prostitute (Sarah Silverman). Ribisi and Silverman clearly have a lot of fun laying out a self esteem safety net for Albert by delivering a constant stream of cuckolding jokes.
The final piece of the puzzle is Charlize Theron, who shows up as a mysterious and badass stranger named Anna who tries to teach Albert how to be okay with himself. Anna’s big secret is that she’s married to Clinch (Liam Neeson): this movie’s man in the black hat, and the least funny way to die in the west.
This plot is nothing new, and neither is the setting, so A Million Ways To Die tries to use anachronistic dialogue, crude jokes and a refreshing amount of physical comedy to get to the end of its nearly two hour run time. It doesn’t get there. When it’s at it’s best, MacFarlane’s film is either like a clever stand up routine set in period dress or a living cartoon. When it’s at its worst, the film is purposefully (and confusingly) void of jokes for long sequences. The result is a movie that seems frustratingly dull.
Starting with the good: when it’s trying to be funny, A Million Ways To Die in the West mostly succeeds. Fans of MacFarlane’s brand of sex, farts, and violence will be happy here when the laughs are being solicited. Silverman and NPH particularly stand out in this regard, both feeling right at home as one dimensional absurd joke machines.
The best parts showcase MacFarlane’s well honed sense of comic timing. As a cartoonist, he made his name by mastering the comedic rule of seven (a joke reaches its punchline after three beats, then becomes tedious until the seventh beat at which point its duration makes it even funnier), and his ability to just bravely stick with something silly or gross pays off a whole lot here. Also worth noting is how the background characters in this film often succumb to the titular death methods, and it always registers hearty laughs.
As for the bad, the plot is so familiar and bland that it practically doesn’t exist. Guy loses girl, new girl comes to help him as friend, male character growth happens but things get confusing love-wise. This wouldn’t normally be a problem in a period parody, because everything should be serving the jokes. What’s really strange here though is that MacFarlane’s script has extended portions that purposefully contain no comedic material whatsoever.
This problem is most clear with Neeson’s villain. I get the impression that his lack of humor is meant to frame him as a dangerous man, but in a world where anyone can die from his own fart, it’s hard to establish this one man as the most credible threat to our hero’s life. There;s nothing to look forward to when Clinch is on screen, even with someone as reliable as Neeson playing him, simply because you will eventually start to realize his presence represents a no-laughing-zone.
Compounding this aversion to all out comedy are scenes in which MacFarlane’s character is moping about how nerds can’t get any sex. Setting aside the unfortunate release timing of this movie in which a character is moved to gun violence because he doesn’t understand why he was dumped (which is enough of a red flag to just not see this all together), these scenes are just as jokeless as the Clinch scenes, ridiculously asking us to care about undeveloped characters with familiar faces while denying us laughter.
This makes the whole experience very ugly. A movie that is one third passable irreverent comedy and two thirds humourless and terrible. The low joke rate also forces you to sit with some questionable racial humour for a bit too long, or at least enough time to ask the question, “Hey, are there any black people in this movie?”
As a vanity project, A Million Ways To Die In The West succeeds for MacFarlane, and it fails in a way that makes me think he’s a really smart guy. I want to meet him and ask him questions about what makes a successful cartoonist write direct and star in such a tonally confused vehicle. In the end, Seth comes off just like the movie: he has something to say but can only express himself by shitting into a hat.