MacFarlane’s latest features nearly ‘A Million’ stale and uninspired gags


By Shawn Cooke / A&E Editor

“A Million Ways to Die in the West”

Starring: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson

Directed by: Seth MacFarlane

Grade: C-

Seth MacFarlane takes a beating in “A Million Ways to Die in the West.” He’s punched in the face, shot, dragged around by his horse, knocked out cold by a stone and, worst of all, urinated on by a sheep.

This sort of self-inflicted pain – MacFarlane also cowrote and directed the movie – probably sounds like it could have been ripped from a late-career Adam Sandler picture. But “A Million Ways” is only MacFarlane’s first starring vehicle (in human form — he provided the voice of the eponymous teddy bear in “Ted”) and his second turn in the director’s chair.

The story’s a simple one: Albert (MacFarlane), a wimpy cowboy reeling from a breakup with his deadbeat girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried), seeks to win back her affections and assert his manhood by learning tricks from Anna (Charlize Theron), a mysterious and seductive gunslinger. But just after Albert’s affections begin to shift to Anna, he discovers that she’s married to the most notorious outlaw in the West (Liam Neeson), who wants Albert killed.

MacFarlane’s directorial debut, “Ted,” was so unexpectedly excellent that it sets some unfair expectations for a guy who’s famously laughed his way to the bank with a show that relies more on pop culture references and cutaway gimmicks than raw jokes. “Ted” strayed from some of MacFarlane’s more grating stylistic tics to tell a bawdy, inventive, unpredictable, but ultimately heartwarming, comic tale.

Though “Ted” was far from a quiet movie, “A Million Ways” makes it look like a Michael Haneke film. MacFarlane’s latest is about as subtle as a 50-car pileup.

As the title suggests, the movie explores hilarious and grisly ways to kill off some of its most minor characters. Often gratuitous and prompting some uncontrollable chuckles, these quick moments serve as a reminder that MacFarlane can still be a master of physical comedy – an R-rated brand of the Marx Brothers or “Tom and Jerry.”  

“A Million Ways” also features all of MacFarlane’s worst tendencies in spades: extension of jokes long past the punchline, recurring gags that should just be one-offs, stale and uninspired racial comedy and, last but not least, a newfound fascination with bodily humor — there’s more onscreen feces, urine and semen seen here than in most hospitals.

Trapped in all this lowbrow sludge is a pleasant enough supporting cast, but they’re relegated to scraping the bottom of MacFarlane’s container of leftovers. Neeson is given exactly one strong line, near the film’s end. Theron seems to be trying her best to keep up with MacFarlane’s antics, while Sarah Silverman and Giovanni Ribisi are forced to try a bit harder with a one-note recurring gag that plays much better in the trailer — She’s a prostitute, he’s a virgin and they’re dating.

It’s tough to shift the spotlight away from MacFarlane, who seems to solely view “A Million Ways” as an excuse to test out his on-camera presence and make out with Theron. He’s charming enough, with charisma to spare, but ultimately gives the impression that he’s straining to prove himself as a leading man. Instead, he occasionally comes off looking like an amateur comedian at one of his first open-mic nights.

This persona comes to fruition in perhaps the film’s most painful moment, when Albert explicitly clarifies the meaning of a joke after a botched duel with Seyfried’s new mustached beau (Neil Patrick Harris). Though it aims to comment on the town’s dimwitted residents, the scene simultaneously suggests that MacFarlane might also feel this way about his fans.

His shiny face and twinkly eyes suggest that MacFarlane was made to be an onscreen movie star, but “A Million Ways” confirms that he’s better off as a cartoon than a plastic cowboy action figure.