Stars: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman, Liam Neeson, Amanda Seyfried, Neil Patrick Harris, Christopher Hagen and Wes Studi.
Writers: Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild.
Director: Seth MacFarlane.
If there is a contender to wrestle the 2014 Worst Picture Razzie from Adam Sandler and his much maligned non-com Blended, it may well be Seth MacFarlane for his starring debut, A Million Ways to Die in the West. One of the most misguided and flagrantly self-indulgent vanity projects in recent memory, ‘The Man Who Killed The Oscars’ puts his talent front and centre with this crude, witless western spoof that reaches its comedic peak when Doogie Howser kicks over a hat full of diarrhoea. Hooray for Hollywood.
MacFarlane refuses to take a backward step from critics who label his brand of shock-schtick frat-boy level puerile; the very first joke is a misogynistic slur, followed by a steady stream of body fluid gags, some homophobic stereotyping and lots of very modern cussing. His on-camera appearance is itself a non-concession to the conventions of the dustbowl melodrama, with his pearly white teeth, gelled hair and man-scaped features entirely at odds with…well, everything. Which, as was evident from his hosting of the Academy Awards, is the essence of his comic persona; MacFarlane looks the dapper traditionalist, but only to the extent that it allows him to infiltrate the establishment and amuse himself by setting light to a bag of poo on their doorstep. A Million Ways to Die in the West represents his latest bag of poo.
The widescreen lensing of DOP Michael Barrett captures the landscape imagery associated the genre, yet MacFarlane does very little to engage on a comedic level with the setting. In one seemingly endless rant that feels pilfered from an outdated stand-up routine, the shrieking actor rattles off all the negatives of the frontier life in 1880’s Arizona; surely some of these could have been explored in greater depth had the script been less reliant upon the auteur’s bottomless well of faecal references.
MacFarlane plays sheep grazier Albert, a whining nobody who loses his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) when she tires of his general unmanliness. Albert finds a (very) patient ear in his virginal best friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and his lovable Christian-whore Ruth (Sarah Silverman), but Albert is near the end of his tether. Things begin to brighten up when Albert saves the beautiful Anna (Charlize Theron)during a bar brawl and an entirely unfathomable romance blossoms, until it is revealed she is scouting the town for her gunslinging bad-guy hubby, Clinch (Liam Neeson, looking nonplussed). On the periphery is moustachioed creep, Foy (the film’s biggest asset, Neil Patrick Harris), who is wooing Louise and remains at odds with our anti-hero.
The solid cast is shunted aside for long passages, allowing MacFarlane underserved centre stage for most of the film’s inexcusable 116 minute running time. Deft comedians like Ribisi and Silverman are left floundering with weak, obvious gags before disappearing entirely; Seyfried’s career takes a backward step in a role that feels brutally truncated, as if the majority of it will bulk up the DVD extras package. The most awkward player is clearly Oscar-winner Theron, who good-sports herself for the benefit of her co-star’s project but is clearly uncomfortable. Broad comedy is not prevalent on the actress’ resume and her casting seems less to do with her comedic skill (despite her natural likability onscreen) and more to do with MacFarlane’s over-seer role; if given the power of veto as writer/director/producer on your first studio pic starring role, why not cast the world’s most beautiful actress, regardless of her suitability, as your love interest?
MacFarlane falls back on his well-worn trick of abstract pop-culture references, the likes of which sometimes worked in his overvalued TV series, Family Guy; the IMDb credit list spoils the surprise factor for fans of Christopher Lloyd, Gilbert Gottfried and Ewan McGregor, but there are some other A-list cameos, all affording the overall production no particularly advantage. Some druggy humour and shock-effect gore is employed, the likes of which may raise a goofy smirk amongst stoners, but the scenes are so devoid of inventiveness or context as to have no impact.
The failure of A Million Ways to Die in the West falls entirely at the feet of Seth MacFarlane and one hopes he wears the blame with the same enthusiasm with which he accepted the accolades for his surprise 2012 hit, Ted. In hindsight, the strength of that film was not the foul-mouthed CGI bear but the warm point-of-entry that its star Mark Wahlberg provided. MacFarlane’s follow-up lacks any connective tissue to human realness, preferring cartoonish coarseness and random excess; it is as if that twisted, needy sociopathic soft-toy was given a one-picture deal as reward for his success, and this is the end result.