With A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014), Family Guy and Ted creator Seth MacFarlane gives us Blazing Saddles for Generation Y, a half-parody, half-skew-eyed western complete with all the trimmings of the director’s trademark digressions, pop culture references and flatulence humour. If you’ve not already been won over by his other work, you’ll have a hard time enjoying MacFarlane’s latest, which is easily too long and – like Family Guy and Ted – outrageously R-rated. And yet, so much is thrown at the wall that some of it’s got to stick – comedy for comedy’s sake, if you will – and while that doesn’t make for a great film necessarily, it certainly doesn’t make for a bad one.
For what it’s worth, the plot concerns MacFarlane’s sheep farmer Albert, down and out after his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) dumped him after he cowardly escaped a gunfight. In the film’s opening sequence, the narrator (never heard again) tells us “Some are born into the wrong place and time; some men were just big giant pussies,” and with a penis gag in the first minute, we know what kind of comedy we’re getting into. For reasons that we assume are for plot purposes only, Liam Neeson is a violent gangster searching for gold, and Charlize Theron’s gunslinger Anna turns up to teach Albert how to shoot just in time for the big showdown. The best stuff is when McFarlane plays up the rag-tangled daftness of the genre, which is perhaps why comparisons to Mel Brooks may not be entirely defunct.
“Why would anyone want to live in the West?” is the basic premise of the start of the film, and with so much casual violence and death in the genre, MacFarlane might be pointing to the ridiculousness of casual violence in cinema. At one point, Albert identifies himself not as the hero but as the “guy in the crowd laughing at the hero’s shirt”. He’s like the leads in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, waking up in another film and wearily self-aware of the absurdity of it all. With fart jokes. Of course, that guy laughing at the shirt is Seth MacFarlane’s stock-in-trade, he’s the nerdy guy who beat the big studios and made an angrier, bitterer version of The Simpsons for network TV, and here he takes his caustic humour to new levels. Some of it rolls so loose it’s like a big-budget comedy night set in the desert (at one point even Bill Maher turns up to compère a barn dance), with MacFarlane’s delivery a unwieldy cross between improv and stand up comedy. In his first starring role, he doesn’t strike as a top-calibre character comedian, playing the straight man to a cavalcade of others, but his liberal use of expletives in a Victoriana setting is solidly funny.
Still, without the lines, he occasionally looks like a like a rabbit caught in the headlights, and you wonder what Ted lead Mark Wahlberg would’ve done with the role. Few of the main cast do as much to impress: Neil Patrick Harris seems such a fit for the absurd moustache salon shopkeeper, but he’s underused and ends up on the bad end of a yucky diarrhoea joke. Seyfried and Theron don’t trouble themselves with any big laughs, so the closest of the main cast we have to a full comic talent is a Sarah Silverman as a prostitute who refuses to sleep with her boyfriend (Giovanni Ribisi) until they’re married. Cameos come aplenty – spot Ryan Reynolds and a certain DeLorean – and there’s a particularly wild Gilbert Gottfried as Abraham Lincoln. However, at two hours, it’s far too long, and some of the diversions are unforgivably lapse. A dream sequence in the last fifteen minutes – complete with flying sheep – is a step too far in the direction of recklessness. Perhaps his A-list cast masks the fact that MacFarlane’s not aiming too high here. A Million Ways to Die in the West is an out-of-control firebrand parody – with fart jokes.