At the risk of offending both comic book geeks and Seth MacFarlane haters, there's a ruthless efficiency -- an eerie steadiness, even -- to the comedian's work. South Park summed this up better than anyone else ever will with its manatees-and-rubber-joke-balls gag. The send-up mocked the Family Guy creator for what is both a strength and a flaw.
MacFarlane is always funny -- at least to some degree -- but his humor is often also grating. This is the reason why I've long since stopped watching Family Guy, but remain interested in MacFarlane's blossoming film career. Week-in and week-out, he gets to be an obnoxious bore. But on the big screen, there's a Marvel Studios-like effortless quality to his comedy. (Again, sorry to the comic book geeks.)
MacFarlane's latest, A Million Ways to Die in the West, carries forward the positive start that 2012's Ted represented. It is not as good as MacFarlane's first foray into film, but it has its moments -- enough of them to make it a decent enough way to spend a Friday night if you don't want to think very much. If that sounds damning with faint praise, well, it isn't meant to be.
A Million Ways is set apart from Ted in that MacFarlane appears on screen in the flesh -- rather than as the disembodied voice of a teddy bear -- and stars as Albert, a fish-out-of-water sheep farmer in the Old West town of Old Stump. MacFarlane's Albert is too aware of the absurdity of his surroundings, repeatedly trashing the harsh awfulness of life on the frontier in the late 19th century. He is, quite obviously, meant to be a man of the '00s just a few centuries off from where he should be.
He openly mocks the machismo coursing through so much of the Old West as he loses his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) to the mustachioed Foy (Neil Patrick Harris) then befriends the wife, Anna (Charlize Theron), of an even more intimidating outlaw Clinch (Liam Neeson).
The 21st-century voyeurism MacFarlane offers is never better than when he's conversing with his closest friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and his prostitute girlfriend Ruth (Sarah Silverman). The joke there is that despite Ruth's profession, she and Edward are waiting to consummate their relationship until they are married. They are Christians, after all.
Eventually, all the self-awareness becomes tired and overbearing, and, unlike Ted, the rest of the film can't really carry the burden from there. There just isn't much imagination or emotional investment to be had beyond the admittedly good isn't-the-Old-West-ridiculous gags. The cinematography is almost embarrassingly dull and trite, considering the canvas.
A Million Ways to Die in the West is funny, but it isn't hilarious. Much like MacFarlane himself, it is good, but hardly ever actually great.