At this point, the Seth MacFarlane comedy formula is so set in stone that you can probably decide whether or not you like his latest offering before pointing even a single eyeball at it. The guy is a joke machine. He’s smart without ever daring to make a statement through comedy, edgy without ever really making audiences uncomfortable, prolific without ever becoming a universally respected comedy institution, and successful without ever delivering a canonical classic. His work can be damn funny, and even though Family Guy has been at the center of pop comedy for a decade, his work still somehow qualifies as a guilty pleasure. So, good ol’ Seth taking on the western in A Million Ways To Die in the West is more of an inevitability than a radical departure and it plays very much like an extended episode of one of his cartoons. The genre is slowly coming back after the twin box office hits of True Grit and Django Unchained and obviously Mel Brooks’ classic Blazing Saddles made the genre a go-to comedy zone 40 years ago. Yet, while Brooks’ movie remains genuinely shocking, groundbreaking, and button pushing, Seth’s Western comedy is just a pleasantly filthy distraction. That’s what he does after all and he does it well.
The film opens with some genuinely stunning shots of Monument Valley, the place John Ford and countless other classic Western directors made iconic decades ago. For a moment it feels like MacFarlane might have a genuine affinity for the genre and desire to dabble in homage, but that goes away pretty much instantly. He’s using the Western just as a clothes line to hang jokes onto and thankfully he’s pretty good at that. The plot is standard Western fare, just structure for a punch up session by MacFarlane, his Ted writing collaborators (Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild), and presumably a vast swab of the Family Guy and American Dad writing staff. MacFarlane stars as a lowly sheep farmer who is hated by his community for being a chicken and freshly dumped by his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) for similar reasons. He starts the movie on a low purely so that he can rise up through the most basic of hero’s journey plot devices. It all hinges on Charlize Theron, a wise cracking dame who has a way with a gun and for some reason decides to teach MacFarlane how to be a hero, love himself, and fall in love with a delightful gal like herself. She also has an evil cowboy husband played by Liam Neeson, so there’s a villain built right into the A plot. Then around the edges there’s a subplot involving a virgin Giovanni Ribisi and his hooker girlfriend Sarah Silverman, a second villain in a mustache -sporting Neil Patrick Harris as Seyfried’s new beau, and numerous cameos from MacFarlane’s famous friends like Bill Maher, Ryan Reynolds, Ralph Garman, and, oddly, Ewan McGregor.
It’s all pretty stock Western stuff with some nerd love wish fulfillment tossed in for good measure. MacFarlane will never be considered an unconventional storyteller or a comedian with a message, but he sure knows how to stage an A+ diarrhea gag and you’ll get one of those and more here. The script is essentially collection of running gags. Some work, some don’t and if you don’t laugh at any specific joke you only have to wait a few seconds for the next one to arrive. Most of the jokes hinge on tossing modern sensibilities against a Western landscape and pointing out how nasty, filthy, and dirty that world is despite all the Hollywood romanticism. That’s all fine and works and the period setting limits MacFarlane’s ability to slide in 80s nostalgia humor, so only the cream of that crop of gags appear and one in particular is fantastic (it’s been given away in a couple trailers, so try to avoid them because it’s a wonderful gag involving a certain iconic 80s scientist). As a leading man, MacFarlane is perfectly pleasant as a wisecracking nerd with a heart of gold, but he’s definitely outclassed by his supporting cast of comedy ringers, all of whom play their one or two note roles to perfection.
Like all Seth MacFarlane joints, A Million Ways To Die In The West is an entertaining time waster with plenty of laughs and nothing that will tax the intellect (unless you need to think really hard to appreciate a semen-based sight gag, of course). The guy specializes in mainstream comedy and he’s good at it. Compare this flick to, say, a recent Adam Sandler movie and its clear Seth knows what he’s doing. He might not be ambitious, but at least he succeeds in shoving enough jokes down his audience’s throat to get them giggling on the regular and even tosses in liberal doses of racy humor to keep things from feeling too sedate. If you hate the candy that MacFarlane’s been peddling for a decade, then you’ll hate this. If you enjoy his humor, that’ll continue. As a director of mainstream comedy, MacFarlane’s even getting better. A Million Ways To Die In The West might not hit the same hysterical heights of Ted, but it’s probably more consistent and doesn’t fall apart as awkwardly in the third act because Seth can rely on Western conventions to pull him across the finish line. Many people might be hard on the guy, but in the world of mainstream crowd-pleasing comedy, he’s at least joking above the curb. A movie like this should be the level of funny we can expect from an average Hollywood comedy. That’s not the case though, so it plays as above average and should get enough people giggling to bring MacFarlane that next dump truck full of cash he so desperately needs to buy a second private island for the winter or something.