Dying on Screen
Seth MacFarlane famously avoided being a victim of 9/11 by arriving too late to catch the plane that would ultimately be flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, but can he survive A Million Ways to Die in the West? A comedian, after all, is only so called because of their perceived ability to make an audience laugh. But in MacFarlane’s follow up to Ted, itself a largely mirthless museum of pop cultural artefacts, the only chortle comes from Gilbert Gottfried as a foul mouthed Abe Lincoln who’s funny because he looks and sounds like Gilbert Gottfried.
When all the reviews are in MacFarlane may want to reflect on how closely a comment on his notorious near miss that September morning matches one’s experience of his new movie. “I didn’t really know that I was in any danger until after it was over,” he said, “so I never had that panic moment. After the fact, it was sobering, but people have a lot of close calls”. They do indeed, Seth. It’s not until this comedy Western ends that you realise your diaphragm has seized up, having failed to contract in two hours, and had the movie gone on much longer, as it surely would have, had MacFarlane’s editor not put his foot down and insisted there was only so much self-indulgence any audience could withstand in one sitting, you might have lost the ability to laugh forever.
The movie’s attempt at making the audience guffaw like idiots is fatally undermined by two factors, both of which look a lot like its star. MacFarlane’s screenplay, co-written with Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild of Family Guy, assumes a non-existent appreciation of his sneering, facetious shtick, plus a degree of immaturity in the target audience that would exclude the need for devices employed by better-rounded comic writers like wit, word play or whimsy: the big three that made Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, a movie to which this aspires, such a pleasure. Saddles proved that anything goes in a genre send-up, including MacFarlane favourites like retarded sexuality, scatology and racism, provided it’s done with intelligence. A Million Ways… feels glib by comparison; a genre spoof that exists to put its creator’s comic persona front and centre but in doing so only serves as brutal evidence of his shortcomings as leading man.
His self-made vehicle leaves him dangerously exposed. We have two laugh-free hours to reflect on his soporific presence as the beatless heart of a movie built on blunt lines, poor comic timing, unfunny, agitated monologues and a nakedly affected zaniness. When a comic’s personality works it looks effortless, you think of Chevy Chase and Steve Martin in their heydays, but here every line reading feels forced, the self-conscious MacFarlane staring vacantly into the eyes of his leading ladies, Amanda Seyfried and Charlize Theron. As the movie progresses, modern idioms imported to a period setting, fuck gags and references to farts falling flat, we realise that what we’re watching is less a movie, more the realisation of MacFarlane’s fantasy: a story in which he not only gets to be the romantic and comic lead, but also have a beautiful co-star tell him/his on screen proxy how smart and funny he is. Indeed the MacFarlane who may have struggled with girls as an adolescent, a period in which his sense of humour was much as it is today, must have felt like a million bucks concocting a fantasy in which he got to turn down one screen beauty (Seyfried, playing the woman that spurns him), only to end up with arguably an even more attractive woman (Theron) at the close. All teenage boys use women as props to boost their ego, you understand, it’s just strange to see a grown man do it and charge audiences the price of a cinema ticket to watch.
A movie written like a series of sketches, rather than scenes used to advance a story, has little hope of engaging an audience, but it’s a flat script and awkward lead that conspire to kill MacFarlane’s film two of a million ways. In a sign of how the film’s been written backwards, i.e. comic situations and one liners first, story second, even the pop culture references don’t work. Christopher Lloyd reprises his role as Doc Brown from Back to the Future Part III in a story set three years before Zemeckis’ comedy western, explaining away his time machine tinkering with an excuse from another instalment, “just a little weather experiment”. Wrong setup, wrong year. That disconnect between the gag MacFarlane had in his head and the flatlining that ends up on screen is the story of A Million Ways to Die in the West. Lloyd’s not the only comic talent wasted therein but I’m omitting their names in the hope that, unlike MacFarlane, that can survive this and move on to better things.