Seth MacFarlane: wanted dead or alive for making dreadful Western spoof

Cert 15 | One Star

THERE are a million ways to die in Hollywood, but being one of the worst ever hosts of the Academy Awards apparently isn’t one of them. Seth MacFarlane survived his Oscars nightmare with enough star quality intact to attract a number of stars who should know better than to star in this hollow, crass, deeply unfunny Western parody. Sarah Silverman, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried and Liam Neeson all assist MacFarlane in pumping a few more hollow-tipped bullets into his already wounded reputation.

He plays Albert, a wimpy farmer whose girlfriend has left him for a debonair man with superior facial hair. Depressed, he spends his time tending to his sheep and being mocked by the inhabitants of the one horse town in which he resides. That is, until Charlize Theron strolls by and aids him in the rediscovery of his mojo.

The central joke is that the Wild West, one of the most romanticised periods of American culture and history, is actually quite unpleasant. The food is horrible, the sanitation is poor and violence erupts regularly and without warning. There are, you see, A Million Ways to Die in the West.

But nothing compares to the unpleasantness of the film itself. When it comes to offending people, MacFarlane shoots from the hip. Muslims, Jews, Chinese people, “black guys”, people with Parkinson’s – all come in for mockery. If you offend everyone, the argument goes, then no one is being discriminated against. But what about white, Family Guy box set-watching heterosexual young men? They get off scot free.

Apart from being un-PC, the jokes just aren’t funny. It feels like an ill-thought-out, unedited observational stand-up routine about Westerns, padded out with unimaginative gross-out skits (a tip: in a comedy, when someone loses control of their bowels, the writer looks just as desperate as the character). Sarah Silverman plays a prostitute who doesn’t believe in sex before marriage; an entire character based on a single joke that isn’t funny the first time, let alone the fifteenth.

For a genre parody it shows precious little insight into the deeper workings of Westerns. Scary Movie was silly and disgusting and guilty of many of the same things as this, but at least it displayed some knowledge of the genre it was satirising. MacFarlane’s acquaintance with Westerns goes as far as what the films look like, and the hardly insightful observation that it wouldn’t be very nice to live in one. Such shallowness suits the two-dimensional world of Family Guy, but sucks the life out of a living, breathing two hour feature film.

That said, it doesn’t even get the surface right. It has the plasticky and artificial look of a Tex-Mex fast food joint. Around this world of painted polystyrene saloon doors wanders MacFarlane himself, a creepy children’s toy of a man, his twinkly banana-eyed face suggesting a warmth that his behaviour and words repeatedly contradict. As a writer he trades on a post-modern insincerity, that translates as glib heartlessness on screen. He is a horrible leading man.

For what is essentially a MacFarlane vanity project, A Million Ways to Die in the West feels oddly rushed and unloved. It’s almost two hours long but it feels like it took less than half an hour to make. It’s like a weak Saturday Night Live skit stretched torturously over 120 minutes.

Ted contravened a golden rule of comedy; you punch up – at the rich, the powerful, the oppressive – and never at the people who have a hard enough time as it is. A Million Ways To Die In the West also has a mean streak, but its worst crimes are artistic rather than moral.

Five more reasons the western is dead:

1. Heaven’s Gate (1980)
This bloated epic is one of the biggest box office flops of all time and heralded a shift away from director-led film productions. You can see why: it sucks really hard.

2. Wild Wild West (1999)
Remember Will Smith? Terrible, right? And never worse than in this Men-In-Black lite action comedy that tries and fails to mesh cowboys and sci-fi.

3. Cowboys & Aliens (2011)
Is it a neat B-movie idea or just an attempt to cash in on the schlocky success of its fellow literally named movie Snakes on a Plane. Clue: it’s the latter.

4. The Alamo (2004)
The Alamo was praised for its historical accuracy. But that’s all it was praised for, because it was really, really boring. Quite an achievement, given the subject matter.

5. The Lone Ranger (2013)
Johnny Depp has suffered from diminishing returns after essentially playing Jack Sparrow in a string of movies. The Lone Ranger was his nadir.