Seth MacFarlane is a rather divisive character. Despite the popularity of “Family Guy,” he has plenty of critics who express little more than abject hatred for his brand of lowbrow humor and stretching a joke to the brink of driving viewers insane.
Until recently, he was best left to network TV, churning out a series of animated series all with similar set-ups and his trademark “everyone is fair game” humor. A few years ago and over a decade after Peter Griffin and his dysfunctional brood hit the airwaves, MacFarlane finally tried his hand at a film, co-writing, directing, and starring in (albeit in animated form) “Ted.” It was well-received by many, and even garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song. MacFarlane now returns to the big screen with “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” a vulgar and overly long comedy that features everything you’d come to expect from the man who once padded an episode of his show with the entire video for Bowie and Jagger’s cover of “Dancing in the Street.”
“Million” follows MacFarlane as Albert Stark, a poor sheep herder lacking self-esteem and harboring a low opinion of the American Southwest, due in part to the myriad ways you can wind up deceased there. After his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him, he saves the life of Anna (Charlize Theron), the wife of famous gunslinger and outlaw Clinch (Liam Neeson). In the process of helping him gain his confidence and become a not-so-terrible gunfighter in advance of his duel with Louise’s new boyfriend Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), Anna begins to fall for Albert — this, of course, doesn’t sit too well with Clinch when he arrives in town.
It’s difficult to compare the film without bringing up “Family Guy.” MacFarlane’s sense of humor is so inextricably linked with the show, it gives off the notion he doesn’t known how to do anything else. Co-written with Alex Sulkin and Wellesley Wild — both of whom are “Family Guy” producers and writers — “A Million Ways to Die in the West” amounts to little more than a 116-minute “Family Guy” episode. As a “Family Guy” apologist this is troubling, because even though I love the show, I’m quick to recognize its faults. For every gut-busting and inappropriate “Oh God, I can’t believe I laughed at that” moment, there’s a handful of jokes that simply don’t work or elicit only a half-hearted chuckle. Now picture this stretched out for two hours, only with the same laugh frequency as the show. It’s a lot of waiting for a few moments of hilarity. At least with a half-hour show, the wait is less of a commitment.
The other main problem with the film is MacFarlane himself. Despite the tendency to play out a joke for its own self-interests on “Family Guy” (do we really need another Conway Twitty cutaway?) rather than for legitimate humor, it’s a wonderfully brilliant show bursting with talent on all fronts. Much of this is due to the diverse characters, each possessing distinct personality and mannerisms that adds a rich and unique layer. Even though the same style of humor pervades most of the film, those elements that make it genuinely funny — the voices, the delivery, the motley cast of characters, and the almost limitless possibilities afforded by animation — are almost entirely absent. This results in a lot of jokes thrown in wantonly yet without the benefit of a proper vehicle to give them context or genuine humor.
The movie thus winds up being the Seth MacFarlane show and little else. He’s got the chops to be an actor, and though he’s serviceable as Stark, his performance gives off the impression that he’s not acting so much as doing a live table read. Adding insult to injury, the supporting cast is simply not given enough time to shine or stretch their wings. Save for Theron, who tries valiantly to play a relative straight woman to MacFarlane’s gag-a-minute lead, the rest are merely outliers, popping up to unnecessarily lengthen the film with MacFarlane’s trademark brand of vulgarity. They’re a loose representation of a cutaway gag: funny at times, other times not, and in no way relevant to the main storyline.
But like every episode of “Family Guy,” there are gems, and despite the multitude of failed jokes that pervade the film, they’re enough to elevate the film to something that be deemed remotely passable as a comedy Hell, a few moments made me feel as if I was watching “Cannibal: The Musical” by Trey Parker, who has in the past devoted a two-part episode of “South Park” to making fun of MacFarlane’s perceived faults. In this regard the humor that works is more akin to the humor found in “American Dad”: relevant to the story, or, in the case of one scene involving Neil Patrick Harris, a man’s hat, and an unfortunately timed bout of diarrhea, just long enough to tickle the funny bone in obscene ways.
These moments, however few and far between they may be, prove that MacFarlane’s humor is best left to 22-minute stretches in animated format. This is a shame, if only because the man is a real talent. We just won’t realize it until he can leave “Family Guy” behind.
“A Million Ways to Die in the West” is rated R. Running time: One hour, 56 minutes. Two stars out of five.