Seth MacFarlane needs to fail.
When I say that, I don’t say that because I want to see him crash and burn. He has proven himself to be an exceptionally talented voice over artist and occasionally funny writer. I will defend his stint as Oscar host because he was willing to actually take shots at the crowd rather than fawn over them a la Ellen DeGeneres. (Plus, everyone seems to misunderstand “We Saw Your Boobs.” The joke was on him and how cheap his laughs usually are – not about the actresses filming nude scenes). So, I want him to be funny. I say that Seth MacFarlane needs to fail because he is in a position where he no longer challenges himself – and can justify that because everything he does is successful. It’s called George Lucas Syndrome, and MacFarlane seems to have a very bad case.
Ted, MacFarlane’s previous film, was a phenomenal success at the box office but not with me. I liked the bear, but I found the rest of the film to be completely lacking. It’s plot was a tired romantic comedy and the film seemed to forget that it had a talking teddy bear. It didn’t even recognize the good ideas that it had.
A Million Ways to Die in the West has even fewer good ideas. It barely even knows what it wants to be. Mel Brooks took the western satire about as far as it can go with Blazing Saddles, and MacFarlane was smart not to try to outdo it. Rather, MacFarlane’s Albert Stark is a geeky man who hates the time and place he lives. He hates the sheep he farms, he dreams of going to San Francisco, and he passes the time complaining to his friends Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and Ruth (Sarah Silverman) about all the ways the land can kill you. These conversations actually lead to the biggest laugh of the film, when Albert points out the town’s mayor has been dead for three days and everyone is just letting him lie in the gutter to be taken away by wolves.
Anyway, his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him for a mustachioed Foy (Neil Patrick Harris) and a new girl in town, Anna (Charlize Theron, one of MacFarlane’s targets in “We Saw Your Boobs”) who teaches him how to shoot and be a man to defeat Foy in a gun fight. Get it? It’s basically the “fix up” plot of any number of romantic comedies that just happens to be set in the old west. OK. I shouldn’t have to tell you then that Albert will have to take on the “meanest gunfighter in the west” Clinch (Liam Neeson) to “win the girl.” And the gunfight has to take place at noon. This is a plot that has been done to death and about five minutes in anyone who’s ever seen a movie can guess how it will end.
I am not criticizing the film for not being original. That’s not the biggest question and Blazing Saddles didn’t have an original plot either. The question is – is it funny?
Well, yes and no. There are funny moments but it’s all in the subplots and quickly gets buried by Albert repeating the same five jokes for the entire run time. Edward and Ruth are far more interesting characters than Albert. Ruth is a prostitute who services ten men “on a bad day.” Edward is her fiance. There is never a question that the two are truly in love. But they refuse to have sex because “they’re both Christians.” When the disparity is pointed out to Edward, all he can say is, “my job sucks too.”
There is a huge amount of comic potential there. Why not have Ruth fall in love with a client, who just happens to be Clinch? Or have him try to get into the profession himself? Why not have their faith challenged?
All of that is ignored in favor of MacFarlane’s western nerd fantasy. It’s the same problem that killed Ted for me. MacFarlane had a great idea and then completely ignored it in favor of a tired plot with little comic surprise remaining.
He’s not even able to recognize the funniest part of his own jokes. One scene late in the second act has Foy being fed laxative by Anna. Duty calls, and he grabs a hat to relieve himself. The first hat isn’t enough, so he grabs another. Then we get a shot of one of the hats being tipped over, and all I will say is I never want to eat chilli dogs again. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this – one of the many famous scenes in Blazing Saddles is an extended fart joke. The funniest part of that sequence is when Foy goes for the second hat, and is constantly batted away by the cowboy. It’s subtle, it emphasizes Foy’s rising tension and bizarre request, and it require no dialogue or sound effects. But that’s not what we’re supposed to laugh at. Based on the countless fart jokes, tasteless items, and out of place pop culture references, it’s clear what MacFarlane wants. We’re supposed to laugh at the hat being tipped over.
This is why MacFarlane needs to be challenged. Family Guy used to be a great piece of television anarchy before it was revived and MacFarlane grew increasingly smug and complacent. His live action sitcoms are apparently duds (I haven’t seen Dads, but the quick cancellation speaks for itself) but they not slowing him down. MacFarlane is smart – he can be funny. He just needs to remember what is funny and why great comedies of the past are still laughed at across generations. Blazing Saddles was just released on a great 40th anniversary edition Blu-Ray. A Million Ways to Die will be lucky if it is not found in a bargain bin or buried on the Netflix homepage in three years.