Seth MacFarlane's A Million Ways to Die pulls off its trick shot

May 29, 2014 at 4:00 am
Nice shootin': Charlize Theron, Neil Patrick Harris, Seth MacFarlane and Amanda Seyfried in A Million Ways to Die in the West.
Nice shootin': Charlize Theron, Neil Patrick Harris, Seth MacFarlane and Amanda Seyfried in A Million Ways to Die in the West. Lorey Sebastian - © 2014 - Universal Pictures

We're still adjusting to Seth MacFarlane as a big-screen star. Not just because his breakneck absurdist humor often demands viewers pause and rewind, but because the man himself looks like a hand-inked cartoon, with his black, pupilless eyes and an alabaster baby face that, lacking cheekbones that could carve in some shadows, appears to reflect light like the moon.

MacFarlane wrote, directed and stars in the ruthlessly funny A Million Ways to Die in the West, yet despite it being head-to-tails his project, he sometimes feels layered on top of the film like Roger Rabbit on a live-action world. Oddly, or perhaps cannily, that works to his advantage. His character, a bachelor shepherd named Albert, doesn't want to fit into 1882 Arizona, a nasty place where people can and do die from snakes, cholera, bulls, fast-moving tumbleweeds, exploding daguerreotypes, falling ice blocks, bad medicine, flatulence and, of course, each other. Groans Albert, "We should all just wear coffins for clothes."

This is the most unromantic take on the wild West since John Wayne in The Searchers vowed to kill his niece. Everyone is dumb, dirty, superstitious and violent. Pre-mass-media and seemingly pre-literacy, the townspeople are so ignorant that Gilbert Gottfried is able to pass himself off as Abraham Lincoln. Worst of all, life's boring. Even children playing with hoops and sticks is deemed mental overstimulation. The only cheery bits are the opening credits music, which sounds borrowed from a Disneyland parade, and Sarah Silverman's fresh-scrubbed prostitute, a Christian whose virgin boyfriend (Giovanni Ribisi) doesn't mind that she's making him, and him alone, wait for marriage. You can't have a Western without a whore — they're as intrinsic to the genre as horses — but Silverman manages to make the role feel novel, even though it's the natural outgrowth of her persona as the world's filthiest chipmunk.

MacFarlane makes no pretense of accuracy, especially not linguistic. When Albert gets dumped by shallow schoolmarm Louise (Amanda Seyfried) for the rich bigwig who runs a mustache store (Neil Patrick Harris), she chirps, "I have to work on myself," a phrase more commonly heard over kale salads in Beverly Hills. Albert himself speaks like an impatient time traveler from the future. Explaining Parkinson's disease, he pauses and adjusts himself: "It's just another way that God mysteriously shows that he loves us."

He's had enough. But on the night Albert plans to flee Arizona for the comparatively cultured San Francisco, he befriends a traveling tomboy beauty named Anna (Charlize Theron) who persuades him to stick around for a week. With his heart still set on Louise, and Anna secretly married to a murderous outlaw (Liam Neeson), the pair are free to do something truly unusual for any Hollywood genre: pal around as platonic friends. (At least for a while.)

Theron proved her comedy chops in the underrated Young Adult, and here she and MacFarlane get along like two eager puppies. If MacFarlane indulges in self-flattery by keeping in all the times this babe bursts into laughter at his jokes, he's forgiven; at least we feel like the characters are actually listening to each other. The Oscar-winning actress isn't given a huge range of things to do, but she does them well, even selling us on her character's slow-building crush on MacFarlane. No small feat, given that he looked more natural kissing a human in Ted when his disembodied voice was shoved inside a teddy bear.

It's hard to pin down how MacFarlane conceives of himself. "I'm not the hero," Albert insists. "I'm the guy in the crowd making fun of the hero's shirt." But MacFarlane can't resist trying do to both, as if, deep inside of himself, he wants to be a real boy after all — an actor who might conceivably one day be cast in a movie without a fart joke.

Will audiences let him? Debatable. At least he's the closest thing we've got to Mel Brooks, a manic comic who empties a six-shooter at the screen in every scene, hoping that at least a couple of bullets hit. Still, A Million Ways to Die in the West feels softer than Brooks' Blazing Saddles, in part because MacFarlane is aiming at an easier target. Blazing Saddles, released in 1974, the same year as Foxy Brown, used the Western as a guise to attack racism. MacFarlane is merely attacking the wild West itself, and we're all in agreement that it was a terrible place to live — even our modern ranchers are mapping their livestock with Google Earth. If MacFarlane really wants to burn his brand on one of our culture's sacred cows, he's chosen the wrong John Wayne genre. Forget the Western: Let's storm the Greatest Generation on the sands of Iwo Jima.