Though I've often been lukewarm if not openly hostile to the television show that made him a household name, over the years I've developed a certain fondness for Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane. He's the first Oscar host in over a decade I can say I emphatically enjoyed, and as a personality, he's more affable and charming than some of his crude for the sake of crude humor would otherwise suggest. My problem with Family Guy has always been that it failed to establish its characters as people who you could care about before turning them into vessels for absurdist humor (as The Simpsons did so well in its early seasons), which made the surprisingly sentimental side of MacFarlane's debut film Ted ultimately so rewarding. His latest effort, A Million Ways To Die In The West, is a bit less heartwarming and considerably more madcap, but there's just enough earnestness and heart to it amidst all the absurdity and vulgarity to keep it grounded and thoroughly entertaining.
A Million Ways To Die In The West follows Albert, a humble sheep farmer in the Old West who just happens to be the only sane man in a comically insane world, constantly troubled by the many and varied ways in which his time and place seems to be out to kill him. When the love of his life, and the only person who made it bearable, leaves him for another man, Albert finds new confidence and romance with a mysterious woman who encourages him to step up and become an unlikely hero just in time for the deadliest man in the west to ride in. My biggest worry going into the film was similar to the one I had walking into Ted, that it would just be one joke repeated ad nauseum, in this case the idea of a modern thinking man's anachronistic observations in an exaggerated old timey setting. Obviously there's a lot of that, but thankfully it isn't the only thing the movie has to offer, and it does a good job of balancing it with different approaches to the same comic conceit.
MacFarlane settles into the role of comic leading man so naturally that its hard to believe this is the first time he's ever headlined a movie like this. There's just something about him that's instantly inviting, a sort of Music Man quality where you know he's smarter than he's trying to look, but you never doubt his sincerity no matter what horrible things are coming out of his mouth. Being the lone voice of reason and a cypher for the audience to key into this over the top, silly world of hyper violence, it would have been easy to make his character a completely cynical bastard, so alien and removed from everything as to make his inclusion uncomfortable, but the film manages to integrate him and his point of view into its world so it never comes off as strange that he belongs, even if he's maybe just a little smarter than everyone else. Also, he never comes across as too smart, or at least too capable of exploiting it, hitting that sweet spot between Chevy Chase-style condescension and the classic lovable loser.
By the traditional standards of comedy, A Million Ways is easily superior to MacFarlane's previous film in every way that really matters, certainly more consistently funny and with a more fully realized central premise. If there's one thing that Ted has over it, it would be in the emotional core that often makes a movie for me. The brotherly love between Mark Wahlberg and Ted was so good that it almost counted as a joke in itself, that you would invest so much emotion into a foul mouthed CGI bear, but here, the sentimentality feels perfunctory, like the romantic relationship between the two leads is just killing time to get us to more jokes. Its not that its bad or even out of place, just sort of arbitrary, like the Zeppo moments in a Marx Brothers movie, as if they would really prefer to have more gags, but people expect this sort of thing. It relies too much on the surprisingly good chemistry between MacFarlane and Charlize Theron to get it through, but then its hard not to fall in love with that woman when she's staring directly into the camera and saying she loves you, even if you know she's talking to some schmuck on the other side of the coverage.
But you simply can't fault the film on funny. This movie is wall to wall jokes, putting recent comedies boasting similar capacity like Anchorman 2 to shame, and unlike the recent work of Will Ferrell and company, if there were more than five jokes that didn't land, I can't remember them. The outrageous horribleness of it all is the most common target, but it never gets old, and I doubt there was more than a three minute stretch without a laugh. Yes, sometimes MacFarlane does succumb to his baser impulses, but not nearly as much as he does on his shows or in Ted for that matter, and in the long run, its forgivable. Seeing a character shit diarrhea into a cowboy hat is enough, we don't need the insert shot of him kicking it over to see it, and having MacFarlane get peed on by sheep while hiding under them would have been funnier if I wasn't wincing from the full on, somehow erect sheep penis we didn't need to see either. Also, I wish Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman were a little more integral to the plot. They mostly serve as comic relief foils for the hero, disappearing for long stretches of the movie, despite both of them providing some of the film's best moments.
I haven't read any other reviews for this movie, but I'm genuinely curious to see how many critics couldn't resist the temptation to throw out a reference to Blazing Saddles, with the obligatory comparison that, as you would expect, it's not quite as good. Well, it isn't (as if it ever could be), but if I may be so bold, I would suggest that if MacFarlane continues on the track he's laid with his first two films and keeps refining his comedic process, in a few years, he just might be worthy enough to take up the Brooks mantle for today's generation. Though A Million Ways To Die In The West is obviously not as well put together or brilliant, the last comedy I remember that was this consistently good was my favorite movie of last year, Edgar Wright's The World's End. Compared to the brutally unfunny anti-comedy of movies like The Hangover Three, the often painfully awkward improvisational comedy of Ferrell and the rising Kevin Hart, and the just plain lazy comedy of movies like Identity Thief and We're The Millers, its good to know that there are at least a few people left who care about writing and basic joke construction and all the ways movies like this used to be good on a more regular basis. Its becoming a lost art form, but then MacFarlane's always had a taste for the old school.