In 2006, M. Night Shyamalan cast himself in a supporting role in his hugely divisive fairy tale ‘The Lady in the Water’. His character was a messaniac figure destined to bring about world peace or a successful two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, I forget which. Anyway, Shyamalan’s character was the impossibly saintly MacGuffin upon which the entire drama of the film turned. And it earned him an unholy amount of brickbats, a goodly number of critics reckoning him misguided at best and an arrogant tosspot at worst.
In 2014, Seth MacFarlane cast himself in the lead role in his hugely juvenile western ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’ so that he could
MacFarlane plays Albert Stark, a self-deprecating sheep-farmer who lives with his parents, hates the wild west for its general ugliness and tendency to curtail lifespans, and finds his only solace in the arms of Louise (Amanda Seyfried). Well, he did for a while. The film opens with his wheedling his way out of a gunfight and earning Louise’s contempt for not acting like a man. Albert responds to rejection in the time-honoured male tradition of going out and getting drunk with his best bud. Said best bud is Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), a virginal shoe-seller whose hooker girlfriend Ruth (Sarah Silverman) is a Christian who doesn’t believe in sex before marriage. This concept, incidentally, is the film’s best joke. Just so you know what level of sophistication we’re dealing with here.
While Albert is licking his wounds, notorious outlaw Clinch Leatherwood* (Liam Neeson) relieves a prospector of his gold and his life. Clinch is riding with his wife Anna (Charlize Theron) and his gang. Tired of Anna’s continual haranguing (how dare she imply that robbery can be done without murder?), he entrusts her to the care of Lewis (Evan Jones), his loyal but knuckled-headed right-hand-man, instructing them to hole up in the township of Old Stump while he and the boys investigate the prospector’s stake.
Lewis instigates a bar fight during his first night in town and is promptly arrested. Albert saves Anna during the fracas (though later events indicate that she’d have handled herself pretty fine) and the two strike up an unlikely friendship which shades towards romance. When they encounter Louise and her new suitor, the oleaginous Foy (Neil Patrick Harris, stealing the show), Anna colludes in a scenario which sees Albert challenge Foy to a duel. There’s only one problem: Albert’s scared shitless and doesn’t know one end of a gun from the other.
Actually, two problems. But y’all knew Clinch was going to reappear at a crucial moment, didn’t you?
‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’ clings to a predictable sequence of narrative beats, the better to send them up. Clinch is a film-long riff on Jack Palance in ‘Shane’. Louise floats around dreamily in frills an a bonnet like Grace Kelly in ‘High Noon’. Ruth’s place of employment could well be the cathouse Hildy works at in ‘The Ballad of Cable Hogue’. Theron’s Anna is halfway between Jane Fonda’s Cat Ballou and the Waco Kid in ‘Blazing Saddles’ if the Waco Kid were a smoking hot blonde and didn’t have a drink problem.
Speaking of ‘Blazing Saddles’, the doffed hat scene is replicated, albeit not in honour of Randolph Scott but the withdrawing from a wallet of paper money (“take your hat off, boy, that’s a dollar bill!”), while the beanfeast transmogrifies here into an extended skit on bowel movements and the availability of cowboy hats.**
(To watch ‘Blazing Saddles’ straight after ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’ is to laugh longer and harder at a film that runs a good twenty minutes shorter.)
MacFarlane’s film has two things working against it, and they work against it for much of its running time. The first is MacFarlane as actor. Whereas Albert in ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’ and John in MacFarlane’s previous film ‘Ted’ are both emotionally retarded loser douchebags, John is played with a kind of coach potato rumpled charm by Mark Wahlberg. MacFarlane gives a one-note performance that lacks any of Wahlberg’s grace notes. (And seriously, folks, when “not as good as Mark Wahlberg” emerges as a critical touchstone, you know something is awry.) The second problem is the script’s dependency on scatological humour. The hat scene is low-brow but funny until MacFarlane decides to point the camera at what’s in the hat. An early scene involving shadow puppetry recycles a gag that was only funny in ‘Ted’ because of the absurdity of having a plush teddy bear enact it. The nadir involves an enuretic sheep.***
Mercifully, the film has enough moments where the humour’s earned to leave it not without merit. The Edward/Sarah subplot hits the target more often than it misses; a running joke about the arbitrariness of death in the west sets up some cynically effective sight gags; an unexpected musical number about moustaches turns a generic barn-dance into a triumph of kitsch; an Indian encampment scene in which Albert takes hallucinogenics and “sees” his future combines Francis Bacon and Salvador Dali (subject of art, Albert’s parents present a joyously foul-mouthed anti-Rockwell tableau); a ‘Back to the Future Part III’ homage earns kudos for how randomly its incorporated; and an end-credits coda proves spot-on bloody perfect.
‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’ is no classic – in fact, at least half of its running time functions on the level of okayish – but when it works (particularly in its last half hour) it achieves a demented energy. Ironically enough, this generally happens when MacFarlane quits self-reflexively referencing other movies and does his own thing instead.
*I told you it was unsophisticated.
**Seriously, I told you.