die in the west

A Million Ways to Die in the West is sold as a comedy-western in the vein of Blazing Saddles. But, surprisingly, writer/director/star what Seth MacFarlane has done is make a movie all about his romantic woes. It’s the most unexpectedly personal film that I’ve seen all year, and if that worked at all in its favor, I would have applauded for it. But instead, it only adds discomfort to an already cringe-ridden experience.

MacFarlane plays Albert Stark, a nebbish sheep farmer living in Arizona in 1882. As Stark will remind the audience constantly, it’s a dangerous time and place. The principal gag of the film, repeated over and over (and over and over and over and-), is that death is a constant presence on the frontier. People get shot, mauled by wolves, crushed by ice, or exploded in photography accidents. It’s not a great environment for the beta male Albert, which is why his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him for the suave Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). Soon, though, Albert finds himself on the rebound with Anna (Charlize Theron), a newcomer to the town who wants to help him hone his masculinity. But Anna also happens to be the wife of Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), the most fearsome outlaw in the territory, which spells more trouble for Albert. There’s also a subplot with Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman as a Christian couple struggling with whether to have sex before marriage, even though Silverman’s character is a quite active prostitute. But that doesn’t really go anywhere.

You probably already know whether or not you’re down for MacFarlane’s comedic sensibility, based on his television series Family Guy and his debut feature film Ted. He is a fan of scatological jokes, over-the-top violence, hipster racism, “women? am I right or am I right?” digs, and the like. As befits the premise, the violence is dialed up from a typical Family Guy episode. In contrast, the pop culture references for which MacFarlane is known are almost wholly absent. The movie doesn’t even acknowledge any famous westerns, though it riffs on a few of the tropes of the genre. In that respect, non-fans of MacFarlane might find this more tolerable. If you are a fan, then of course you’ll probably laugh at this film, although perhaps not as much as you might think.

That’s because there are long stretches where the movie doesn’t even try to be funny, committing fully to the romance between Albert and Anna. MacFarlane and Theron can banter well enough, but their chemistry doesn’t stretch much further than that. This is where it feels MacFarlane is baring his soul. As Albert vents his frustrations about his relationship with Louise, every word feels like something MacFarlane feels about his own life. MacFarlane is a huge fan of frat humor and an admirer of ’80s action movies, but also loves musical theater and science programming (which is why he produced the new series of Cosmos). By inserting a version of himself into this do-or-die, testosterone-rules vision of the Old West, he seems to be creating a situation whereby he can redeem his own lack of traditional manliness. It’s fascinating but also kind of sad.

Albert is set up as an archetypal “nice guy” whom Louise doesn’t appreciate because she’s shallow, and thus easily swayed to a jerk like Foy. He at first doesn’t recognize her faults because he’s so grateful just to have someone so beautiful, so low is his self-esteem. It takes a woman like Anna coming along who appreciates him to get him to gain some self-confidence. What this means is that Albert’s arc is that he comes to recognize that he was a great guy all along. There might have been a worthwhile lesson about self-esteem here (and that, I think, is the one that’s intended), but it instead plays out as grossly self-satisfied wish fulfillment for MacFarlane and any other dude who feels like he’s owed appreciation from women despite doing little to earn it.

A Million Ways to Die in the West doesn’t offer much to fans of westerns or comedies. MacFarlane is fond of braying punchlines loudly, sometimes even to the point of ruining perfectly good gags through redundancy. To me, the best jokes were the ones that either actually played with the time period (such as some townspeople’s’ wonder at beholding a dollar bill) or embraced absurdity (like most of the stuff with Foy, a dandy who owns a “mustachery” – I’m very fond of mustache humor). But the film is mostly a slog, inducing more embarrassment at how unfunny it is than anything else. Laughs were sparse at my screening, even though the audience seemed game for what the movie was trying to do. For MacFarlane fans, it’ll probably be serviceable, while it will only feed the hate of those who don’t like the man’s work.