Seth MacFarlane is one talented guy. Sure, a lot of people have written him off for his “lowbrow” and “tasteless” sense of humor. But few modern performers have mastered such “lowbrow” comedy through everything from animation to feature film to songwriting to live performances. The one thing MacFarlane has yet to do is get in front of the camera and star in a movie. We all know that he’s a gifted voice-over actor, as seen in “Family Guy,” “Ted,” and “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” (yeah, he played the guy in the containment suite believe it or not). Does voice-over acting transfer well to screen acting, though? In MacFarlane’s case, it does.
In “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” MacFarlane might not give a transcendent comedic performance that shows off incredible range. He’s still very much playing himself, providing sarcastic commentary. Of course nobody in entertainment today does that sort of thing better than MacFarlane. The same could be said about a younger Bill Murray, Jerry Seinfeld, Groucho Marx, or Mel Brooks.
Speaking of Brooks, the film everyone is destined to compare “A Million Ways to Die in the West” to is “Blazing Saddles.” While both films share a similar brand of edgy humor and entertaining musical numbers, “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is still far from being up there with “Blazing Saddles.” If anything, “Django Unchained” is the closest we’ve come to a modern “Blazing Saddles.” “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is still good fun, though, with some big laughs, killer performances, and a classic musical score to boot.
MacFarlane plays Albert Stark, a bad sheep farmer who has the misfortune of living in 1882 Arizona where you can die at any place at any time. To make matters worse, Albert’s been dumped by his big-eyed girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried), who is now shacking up with a snooty mustached playboy named Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). Just as Albert is ready to leave the Old West for good, he’s convinced to stay upon falling for a foxy gun slinging girl named Anna (Charlize Theron). Little does Albert realize that Anna is married to Liam Neeson’s Clinch Leatherwood, the meanest outlaw this side of Mad Dog Tannen.
Although MacFarlane does well in his first major on camera role, the first-rate supporting cast also carries much of the weight. Theron’s Anna is something of a perfect comedic foil to MacFarlane’s Albert, making for one of the most memorable comedic duos in awhile. Giovanni Ribisi is also good as Albert’s best friend who doesn’t seem to mind that his loving girlfriend is a prostitute. She’s played by Sarah Silverman, who will have sex with anyone except for her boyfriend, who must wait until they’re wedded in the eyes of God. Makes perfect sense, right? Throw in one great cameo after another and you have yourself an ensemble that can do little wrong.
What MacFarlane really nails as a writer and director here is the use of slapstick, which is often considered easy to do. Slapstick gags might be easy to produce. If Adam Sandler and those guys who made “Disaster Movie” have proven anything, though, it’s that good slapstick humor is hard to produce. MacFarlane finds just the right balance of pain and misery in his slapstick timing, making for an often hilarious live-action cartoon of sorts.
That being said, most of the best jokes in “A Million Ways to Die in the West” are visual related, namely a runaway slave shooting game. The written jokes on the other hand, are hit and miss for the most part. The film is also roughly 20 minutes too long with a few chases and sheep penises that could have been cut out altogether. Still, when the film hits it really hits and there’s just too much solid material on display to completely pass up “A Million Ways to Die in the West.” If you’ve never been a fan of MacFarlane’s humor, this probably won’t be the film to win you over. If you love is work, however, you’ll be getting exactly what you want. At least that’s more than can be said about “The Cleveland Show” or “Dads.”
• Ahwatukee native and Desert Vista graduate Nick Spake is a student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for five years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com. Reach him at nspake@asu.