There’s a scene in Seth MacFarlane’s animated sitcom, Family Guy, in which the precocious baby Stewie attempts to get his mom’s attention through a solid 30 seconds of just repeating her name or variations on the word “Mom.” That’s the whole joke: A kid just keeps repeating essentially the same word for 30 seconds until he wears her down, and then he doesn’t have anything more to say then “hi” once he finally gets her attention.
That’s MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West in a nutshell: A constant assault of repetitive jokes designed to wear the viewer down, without much to say in the end.
What’s frustrating about MacFarlane — who writes, directs and stars in this Western about Albert, a cowardly sheep farmer who inadvertently falls in love with the wife (Charlize Theron) of a dangerous outlaw (Liam Neeson) — is that sometimes, maybe even as much as half the time, he actually is legitimately funny. There are subtle, smart jokes scattered throughout the film, but they tend to get drowned by the bleating volume of lazy jokes about bodily functions, racial and gender stereotypes and learning-disabled sheep. The problem isn’t that the jokes are crass; they’re just not that funny.
MacFarlane’s obvious touchstone here is another western comedy that was both crass and smartly provocative, Mel Brooks’ 1974 Blazing Saddles. Like Brooks, MacFarlane attempts to hit satirical hot buttons, making jokes at the expense of racists and the closed-minded, and employing strategic anachronisms and fourth-wall breaking to help make points about the ridiculousness of old-fashioned attitudes.
It’s odd to point to Brooks as a model of restraint, but Blazing Saddles is a model of Bergmanesque austerity in comparison to A Million Ways to Die. Where Brooks made a funny point about bean-sparked frontier flatulence in one brief and memorable scene, MacFarlane can’t let five minutes go by without a fart joke. Poor Neil Patrick Harris, playing the foppish owner of a moustache-accessory store who steals Albert’s girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried), has to play a seemingly endless scene of violent diarrhea in the middle of a street, with a particularly unnecessary payoff at the end. Bridesmaids did nearly the same thing, but MacFarlane is determined to up the ante on that scene in every respect except the humor.
Occasionally, quietly, MacFarlane plays the thoughtful provocateur rather than the carnival huckster, and it comes down to the old storytelling rule of showing rather than telling. Albert sitting at a table self-consciously telling a couple of friends a bunch of terrible ways the West can kill you, like a second rate stand-up comic? Not so funny. But when his character shows blithe insensitivity, by accepting the government’s propaganda about Native American relations, it’s a funnier way of poking at 19th century racial attitudes than the moments when Albert just comes out and tells us what we’re supposed to be getting out of a scene.
All creative projects are about choice, and more than anything else, A Millions Ways to Die in the West comes off as an abdication of creative choice. There’s no sign of a filter here, no indication that MacFarlane and his co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild ever looked at a gag and thought, “You know, this one isn’t good enough.” Instead, we get everything that crossed their minds.
As a result, the movie is a good 20 minutes too long. There are a lot of repeated jokes that just start to feel stale: the sixth joke about the prostitute played by Sarah Silverman being called away from her virginal boyfriend (Giovanni Ribisi) to have loud sex within earshot isn’t any funnier than the first. But the lack of editing also means that they can’t resist trying to hit every Western trope they can. Just when the movie seems like it should be about to end, we get an extended sequence with Indians and a mescaline-induced vision quest that just drags the already choppy pacing of the film off a hallucinogenic cliff.
The other choice that might have benefited the movie is a different lead. MacFarlane may have a facility for playing voice characters, but when he’s onscreen himself, he just seems like a version of the same smirking presence that hosted the Oscars, in a cowboy hat instead of a tux. With MacFarlane onscreen as a minor variation of his real life persona, it’s that much harder to get away from the feeling that he’s playing the role of Stewie here, spending two hours tapping us on the shoulder, constantly asking, “Is this funny? Is this funny? What about this? Is this funny?”