Let’s just get right to it. A Million Ways to Die in the West is the most disappointing movie of the summer thus far.
Maybe I expected too much from Seth MacFarlane and his new movie. At the very least, I expected to laugh. Especially a couple of those deep, “it’s so wrong, but so funny” laughs that makes me lurch forward in my seat. But for most of this, I sat still, just staring up at the screen and wondering if I should be laughing.
Initially, I thought it was just me. But I wasn’t the only one. Before the movie started, the audience felt like a group that was ready to burst out and laugh for a couple of hours. Yet the theater was surprisingly quiet during the film. It was the kind of awkward silence that comes when jokes just bomb.
I consider myself a fan of MacFarlane’s comedy too. While I’m not a devoted watcher of Family Guy or American Dad, I’ve watched those shows often enough to appreciate what he does. I thought he did a good job hosting the Academy Awards last year, taking far too much criticism for daring to be entertaining. Yes, I laughed at “We Saw Your Boobs.”
I admire MacFarlane’s willingness to push boundaries with his humor, to go there even if that sometimes means he just makes a juvenile fart or sex joke. I enjoy how he takes things we typically hold precious — the family dynamic, the innocence of a baby, a boy’s yearning for friendship — and subverts them.
That’s one of the reasons I enjoyed MacFarlane’s first film, Ted, so much. A teddy bear that gives people the finger, smokes pot and constantly swears? That stuff is funny! So is the idea that a 35-year-old man — especially one played by tough guy Mark Wahlberg — can’t give up his childhood friend and security blanket to step into adulthood.
But at the risk of being trite, Ted had a heart to it. While we could laugh or shake our head at the main character’s unwillingness to give up childish things, we could also relate to him not wanting to abandon a friend.
By comparison, A Million Ways to Die in the West feels soulless. To be fair, this is a different type of story — a commentary and satire on the Western, rather than a romantic comedy. Yet when Ted made fun of pop culture and our love for nostalgia, it was sharp and insightful. In this film, the observations may be funny, but feel more like something from a stand-up riff than part of a movie.
MacFarlane is on to something when tweaking how we romanticize and mythologize the Old West. OK, men settled their differences in bar brawls and gunfights, and had noble, honest professions like sheep farmer, carpenter and banker. But there really were no rules. People were regularly murdered and left in the streets to die. Medicine was no match for the variety of diseases plaguing the populace. Work was hard, punishing and debilitating.
However, the movie just comes to a stop when MacFarlane’s character, Albert Stark, goes on a rant about how much the Old West sucks. It’s probably appropriate that he has this monologue while sitting in a bar with friends because this is exactly the sort of conversation that would take place over beers while talking about or watching Westerns.
But it doesn’t fit naturally with a story, and that’s a frequent problem throughout A Million Ways to Die in the West. Scenes are just vehicles for MacFarlane to get off a joke, rather than move the plot forward.
Of course, that wouldn’t seem so bad if the jokes were funny. (Or if the best gags weren’t already given away in the trailers.) Yet so frequently, they’re not.
Just adding “fuck” to a line of dialogue doesn’t automatically make it funnier. Describing what Sarah Silverman’s character lets men do to her as a prostitute in explicit, obvious detail really doesn’t bring many laughs. Well, maybe it does the first time around, as her boyfriend (played by Giovanni Ribisi) listens to these descriptions as if she was explaining a meeting she had to run at work. But MacFarlane and crew go to that joke — and several others — again and again.
There is something to be said, however, for how much fun everyone seems to be having while making this movie. Charlize Theron, in particular, shows a side of herself that hasn’t really been seen on screen before, outside of talk show appearances and the occasional interview. She has rarely done comedy throughout her career, and judging by her performance here, we’ve been deprived because of it.
Perhaps Theron has refused to be in a dumb romantic comedy. Or maybe directors (and casting directors) realize that a woman who comes across as self-assured and tough as Theron wouldn’t be believable as the girlfriend or token love interest. Filmmakers might just not really know what to do with her. It’s perplexing to me that she’s not a bigger star, at least in terms of film roles.
If MacFarlane deserves credit for one thing from this movie, it’s that he’s given Theron a role that shows all of her talents. (He also probably deserves credit for writing a story in which he gets to kiss Theron several times.) She’s tough, compassionate, sympathetic, vulnerable, and — most importantly — she’s funny. Even if there are times when it seems like she’s laughing a bit too hard at MacFarlane’s wisecracks. That could be acting. Or maybe there was some improv in those scenes, and Theron was legitimately breaking up.
Theron is also pretty believable in falling in love with MacFarlane’s Stark because he’s the first truly nice guy she’s ever met. I went into the movie thinking MacFarlane casting himself as the lead would be a big mistake. And I’m not sure this wouldn’t a better production with a more conventional actor as the star.
Yet I couldn’t think of anyone who could pull off a loser-ish vibe, transition to slightly heroic, but be handsome and tender enough to attract Theron, while also being funny. That is, anyone who hasn’t done it before, like Wahlberg, Steve Carell or Seth Rogen. MacFarlane may have made the best decision by casting himself, after all. Just as Stark has to show us he’s capable of being the hero, MacFarlane has to show he can be a leading man.
If only MacFarlane the writer and director had given MacFarlane the actor a better movie to work in. But I feel like we shouldn’t give up on him. (And he’s going to have plenty of other chances, based on his overall success.) This was only MacFarlane’s second film, and with a far larger scope than Ted. Perhaps this was just a bit too ambitious. Yet maybe he’s also got some mistakes out of his system.
With Family Guy, MacFarlane created a universe in which he could do anything. The jokes mattered most. If he wanted to put story on hold for a certain gag or work off a rant, he had the forum for it. A movie is much different. Story has to be important, especially if you’re not just trying to blow away viewers with widescreen CGI spectacle. Jokes — even with visual gags — don’t work the same way. Somehow, they have to serve the story.
I’m eager to see if MacFarlane understands that for his next movie.