It’s been a long, snaky road from animator to star for Seth MacFarlane, but he’s finally made it with A Million Ways to Die in the West, the Western comedy he co-wrote and directed that opens in theaters this Friday. The film features the Family Guy creator in his first live-action leading role as Albert, a cowardly sheep farmer living in Arizona in 1882 — a development the world may not have been waiting on anxiously, but MacFarlane sure seems to have been.
The massively successful TV producer has always shown an urge to perform, even as he’s built an animated empire over the course of the last decade. MacFarlane’s voiced major characters in all of his animated series, including Peter, Brian, and Stewie Griffin, as well as the titular teddy bear in his movie directorial debut Ted. He’s also recorded albums of swing and jazz standards and hosted Saturday Night Live, Comedy Central roasts, and a particularly divisive Academy Awards.
When it comes to television, MacFarlane’s (in)famous for quick cutaways and shock comedy in which no subject is safe. But in edging his way onto the screen himself in A Million Ways to Die in the West, he tries to balance the expected jokes about race, bodily fluids, and child brides with some actual romance. The animator-turned-actor may like pushing buttons, but in the end, he just wants to be loved.
The thing is, love or hate MacFarlane’s brand of humor, his smug, brotastic persona is basically the opposite of lovable. In A Million Ways to Die in the West, it’s a giant, self-created obstacle he doesn’t manage to overcome. Whatever he might be like in person, MacFarlane’s cultivated a permasmirk in public that serves as a pre-emptive response to anyone who dares get offended by one of his gags — like the one at the Oscars when he opened the night by singing that awful two-minute ode to seeing actresses’ boobs, all in the guise of a slight against himself. (The joke is that it’s an offensive joke, y’all!)
MacFarlane’s a huge Hollywood success who heads up a billion-dollar franchise and has dated a string of starlets, but in A Million Ways to Die in the West, he’s cast himself as a nice but weak-kneed type, a self-proclaimed nerd who gets dumped by his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) and requires multiple pep talks about how great he really is from his love interest Anna (Charlize Theron).
It’s a jarring contrast, given the degree to which the movie’s set up to not require him to act but to just be himself, with anachronistic, self-aware dialogue. (At one point, Albert notes he’s not the hero; “I’m the guy in the crowd making fun of the hero’s shirt.”) A Million Ways to Die in the West suggests that, like fellow multihyphenate Kevin Smith, MacFarlane still sees himself as the scrappy underdog while, to much of the outside world, he looks more like the occasional bully.
Co-written by regular MacFarlane collaborators Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, A Million Ways to Die in the West is an unhurried combination of the expected sort of gags (a character takes a prolonged shit into a hat, there are some random celebrity cameos, and half-hearted jabs at Native Americans, Jews, and Muslims) and some woefully flat attempts at actual character development for Albert.
But MacFarlane has surrounded himself with some great talent, so the movie chugs along anyway, even when its jokes fail to land. Neil Patrick Harris, who plays a monied storeowner, could wring laughs from a Holocaust joke (and practically has to), while Sarah Silverman brings an R-rated chipperness to her role as a hooker who, in her personal life, is saving herself for marriage to boyfriend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi).
But it’s Charlize Theron who gives the most warm, comfortable, enthusiastic performance in between the bits about the jizz stuck to the side of a prostitute’s face and the “runaway slave”-themed shooting gallery at the fair. She’s playing a period piece cool girl, but in scenes in which she gives Albert a hard time about his hesitation in eating a pot cookie or jokes about the discomfort of her evening dress’s bustle, she encapsulates the tone the movie aims for and fails to hit. She’s unabashedly contemporary and down-to-earth while committing to a character who’s secretly the wife of an outlaw (Liam Neeson). For an actress who’s so often cast as regal or imperious, she’s wonderfully at ease in this comedy — more so than her co-star.
Though the outrageous jokes in A Million Ways to Die in the West fall flat, the best ones are those that poke fun at the era or genre in which the movie’s set. The film opens with shots of iconic Monument Valley and gets laughs out of how no one smiles for photos, how much money a dollar was at the time, and the way a saloon instantly explodes into a brawl given the slightest spark. These are geeky, gentle gags, with little of the rote provocation with which MacFarlane’s usually associated, but they’re also the ones that actually work — and the best indication that the film’s director and star is at least a little bit of the nerd he tries to play. MacFarlane hasn’t made a very good case for himself as a leading man in A Million Ways to Die in the West, but the movie does give a hint of what his output might be like if he didn’t feel the need to always reach for outrage.