MacFarlane relies on tired tropes in ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’

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Animated-comedy guru Seth MacFarlane made his auspicious directorial debut with “Ted,” which received the distinction of being the highest-grossing R-rated comedy. As he has established himself as the forerunner of Hollywood’s raunchy comedy genre, his second film follows a similar model of foul-mouthed eccentric characters —  but this time in the comedy western film “A Million Ways to Die in the West.” The film takes place in 1882 on the American frontier, and MacFarlane’s pop-culture references in “Family Guy” and “Ted” are replaced with Western tropes. Unfortunately, MacFarlane’s Western farce is a series of missteps from its poorly written script to its juvenile humor and dull characters.

MacFarlane plays Albert, a cowardly sheep farmer who gets dumped by his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) in favor of Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). Albert is the typical MacFarlane everyman character — an unambitious farmer who mopes about his ex-girlfriend replacing him with another man. Unfortunately, as with Peter Griffin in “Family Guy,” the lazy man-child role is played out, feeling even more contrived in the Western setting. MacFarlane’s snarky, matter-of-fact delivery about the dangers of the West comes off as disingenuous and conventional.

Anna (Charlize Theron) is the woman who becomes strangely smitten with Albert after he saves her at a bar. For the first half of the movie, Albert attempts to win Louise back from Foy with the help of Anna. Albert’s best friend is Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), who has a relationship with a prostitute named Ruth (Sarah Silverman). Edward and Ruth have basically no role in the plot and are there only for repetitive, cuckold-driven humor. In the second half of the movie, Albert fends off Anna’s abusive husband, Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson).

Clinch is notably absent from the first half of the film, and Albert and Anna’s relationship has no chemistry, driven solely by a white-male gaze. Anna is a beautiful blonde marksman who is given no backstory and constantly lavishes Albert with praise and encouragement. Her only role, like a manic pixie dream girl, is to throw herself at Albert so he can regain his confidence and fulfill his goals.

Side characters such as Edward, Ruth and Albert’s parents appear and disappear for stretches without achieving any purpose. By the second act, the script falls apart with the lack of consistency and depth from the characters. The talent of the cast members is wasted on one-dimensional characters with senseless personalities and zero prime aspirations.

“A Million Ways to Die” is also an example of the lengths MacFarlane takes to get a laugh out of audiences. MacFarlane has a propensity to integrate shock humor, which is evident in his previous short-lived and widely-panned network television show “Dads,” which was noted for the racist and misogyny-laden comedy of its pilot. Many scenes in “A Million Ways to Die” teeter on the edge of offensive humor, but the problem is most of these scenes just aren’t funny and feel forced.

There’s a scene of a carnival shooting-gallery game called “Runaway Slave” in which the characters take turns shooting Jim Crow-era black cartoon figures for money. Toilet humor is also featured: Neil Patrick Harris defecates in two cowboy hats after feeling too gassy for a duel. The jokes mostly fall flat and seem desperately eager to arouse a reaction from audiences.

“A Million Ways to Die in the West” feels offensive not with its content but with its lazy and tedious writing and direction. With its talented cast and profanity-ridden red band trailers, it’s clear that the studios are banking on the star appeal of the actors and the MacFarlane-band humor. Let’s hope theatergoers find a million more reasons not to watch this Hollywood cash grab.

Contact Fan Huang at [email protected].