Seth McFarlane is a highly intelligent, clever, and often hilarious comedian, creator, and artist. Sure, he’s also crude, profane, and, at times, socially unacceptable, but if you’ve seen Ted (about Mark Wahlberg’s talking teddy bear friend) or the cartoon Family Guy, you’re aware. So, a western comedy called A Million Ways to Die in the West, produced by, directed by, written by, and starring McFarlane would seem to be all of the above, right? Unfortunately, it is most of the above, with the exception of… funny.
Sheepherder Albert Stark (McFarlane) isn’t particularly good at his job in 1882, and he doesn’t seem to have any of the normal characteristics you’d expect in a resilient westerner. In fact, he is, to quote Back to the Future III, “yella.” But when the Woman with No Name (she has a name, it’s Anna) (Charlize Theron) rides into town, escaping momentarily her good-for-nothing, bloodthirsty outlaw husband, Clinch (Liam Neeson), Stark’s life changes. For too long, Stark has hung onto a meaningless relationship with Louise (Amanda Seyfried, who seems to have been cast solely because of the size of her eyes), who “allowed him” to be happy, but who has now cast him off for the mustached Foy (an underused Neil Patrick Harris). The film’s intent seems to be to wind us up to the showdown between Stark and Foy, and finally Stark and Clinch, but along the way, it meanders back to the same three or four jokes, in effect beating an already dead horse.
Just to be clear: I have seen every western that’s arrived in theaters over the last thirtyish years, because I love the genre. There is something remarkably clever about McFarlane’s commentary on things like the medicinal outlook in 1882, the way that he critiques the interaction between the Native Americans and the European settlers, the shooting gallery featuring images of runaway slaves (a bit that provides the best gasp, and humor, of the film), the western genre itself. But these are way too few and far between in a film that drags on, and seems to hone in on gross out gags with sheep body parts and diarrhea. McFarlane knows funny and clever but he here plays to the lowest common denominator, and ends up doing neither western melodrama nor twenty-first century Blazing Saddles well.
There were several ‘religious’ moments that struck me as insightful, mostly because I think people of faith should learn from how others see them. I’ll lay them out below, and I don’t think they’ll steal much from the film (if I haven’t already begged you enough to save your money and go see X-Men: DOFP or even Godzilla or …anything.)
In the first, Stark talks about the town preacher who gunned down two men. The first man took offense and had to be put down, but the second was his son, who the preacher killed to keep from exacting revenge. Then he preached a sermon about ‘following through,’ that used his killing the two men as a significant example. We see McFarlane’s humor in the western ways of the world circa 1882, but we also understand that he’s saying that Christians can justify anything they want to if it’s expedient to their needs. Are we guilty as charged?
An ongoing conversation occurs between Stark’s friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and the love of his life, Ruth (Sarah Silverman), who is a prostitute. There are side comments made about how Edward feels about Sarah’s occupation that are insightful/humorous the first two to three times, but become annoying by the eighth. But both Edward and Ruth are ‘professed Christians,’ and Ruth won’t have ‘relations’ with him until they’re married because God doesn’t want that. He continues to pressure her, she continues to demure. Take it out of the west, and you have a conversation between a bunch of young adult Christians about sex. There’s hypocrisy to go around, and it begs the question, “what has the church made sex about anyway?”
At one point in another ‘bit’ (because this seems to be a group of McFarlane sketches just sewn together around a western narrative), McFarlane’s Stark references a man having Parkinson’s. “What’s that?” Louise asks. “Oh, just another way God shows us that he loves us,” Stark replies. It’s noticeable in two ways I can see now: the first is that McFarlane perceives Christians as having a rose-colored view of suffering that doesn’t let them evaluate pain in a way that speaks to others, the second is that because there is suffering in the world, McFarlane dismisses that there could be a loving god. It’s an age-old argument, but one that seems much deeper (and more intimate) than most of the other jokes we get from him throughout the movie.
Overall, McFarlane fails to deliver but it begs the question: if you’re writing, producing, directing, and providing the majority of the acting, who’s going to pull you aside and say, “hey man, we should try this” or “that’s not really working”? In the end, maybe he tried too hard, did too much. Whatever the reason, he ends up with a giant mess of sheep…