Scarcely a scene goes by in Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West without some joke related to the baser functions of the human body. Some are fairly simple—the passing of gas here is, of course, inherently funny—while others are far more elaborate. The most notable may be an extended bit of physical comedy on the part of Neil Patrick Harris, who takes a lowest-common-denominator gag involving the rather dramatic effects of laxatives and sells it harder than Daniel Day-Lewis could ever imagine. As far as gross-out jokes go, it’s an effective one—so much so that many audience members at my screening, myself included, literally gagged at what was being implied—but its impact might have been even greater had MacFarlane showed a bit more tact leading up to this poop de grâce. There’s something admirable and almost charming about a film so unpretentiously determined to live in the gutter, even though its effects can ultimately be numbing.
It can also be disheartening, since I believe MacFarlane is capable of comedy far more dignified than what is normally on display here. He is quite plainly a witty fellow, and it occasionally seeps through in his work, but then he too often retreats into comedy of an easier, grosser and occasionally off-putting sort. His first film, Ted, was no masterpiece, but it’s a charming confection that shows more savviness than is normally evident in his television projects. A Million Ways to Die in the West is a much more aggressive film, and how much you like it will almost certainly depend on your preexisting feelings for MacFarlane. Ted was able to win over skeptics like myself, but this new film suggests his sensibilities are not going to change anytime soon.
Of all the risky decisions MacFarlane makes in his second film, the one that pays off the best is the choice to cast himself as the lead, a sheep farmer named Albert Stark. The role was clearly always meant to be his, for better or worse, since Stark can essentially be described as a sarcastic 21st century comedy writer plopped into the middle of the old west. As such, MacFarlane plays him well enough, but there’s only so much ironic detachment one can take before it becomes grating. The film is at its best when it casts those qualities aside and throws joke after joke at the audience without stopping everything to point them out. This is best exemplified in the relationship between Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and Ruth (Sarah Silverman), which is every bit of filthy as the rest of the movie but comes from a refreshingly sincere place. Equally committed is the aforementioned Neil Patrick Harris, who plays the mustached man who steals Louise (Amanda Seyfried) away from MacFarlane.
However, as with any comedy, the greatest sin committed by A Million Days to Die in the West is that it can occasionally forget to be funny for significant stretches of time. This is most evident when Liam Neeson’s Clinch shows up onscreen, at which point audiences can be assured there won’t even be an attempt at a joke for the next five minutes. It’s a shame, because Neeson can actually be a wonderfully funny performer, but MacFarlane barely has him do anything more than scowl. (It’s also fairly obvious that the production only had access to Neeson for a limited amount of time.) The casting of Charlize Theron also feels like a missed opportunity, since her primary job seems to be standing next to MacFarlane and laughing at his jokes. She’s usually able to at least participate in the riff, praise the gods, but anyone who has seen Arrested Development knows she’s capable of playing a character that is the source of the comedy rather than the audience for it.
That speaks to what is most frustrating about A Million Ways to Die in the West and MacFarlane in general. The glimpses of genius are so promising that there can’t help but be a sense of deflation when it sinks back into familiarity. On top of the constant bathroom jokes, and I do mean constant, MacFarlane is sure to throw in his usual pop culture gags bound to get a laugh of familiarity from the audience. Unfortunately, the most notable and surprising of these gags has been spoiled in many recent commercials, thus defeating the purpose. Like many jokes in his career, it’s a solid surface-level laugh that ultimately says nothing and has no deeper meaning. That’s not inherently a problem—not all comedy needs to be “Important”—but A Million Ways shows a filmmaker all too happy to stay right where he’s comfortable, even though he quite plainly has the potential to be more consistent. The fans will be pleased, but with more films like this he’ll only wind up stoking the fire of his detractors. Not that he cares, of course.