Seth MacFarlane has proven to be a jack-of-all trades throughout the years. Whether it’s voicing dozens of characters in his multitude of animated Fox shows or directing, producing, co-writing, and co-starring in the wildly successful 2012 comedy “Ted,” the 40-year-old can seemingly do it all.
There’s one role MacFarlane hasn’t yet mastered, though: being a leading man.
As a comedy force who has flourished behind the camera, MacFarlane earned legions of fans for his ability to mix crass, lowbrow humor with intelligent and often sarcastic observations. This style works fine when he is playing a baby hell bent on world domination, or a stoned, talking teddy bear. But when you strip away the animation and impressions, his more risque jokes just don’t seem as funny (case in point: his turn as host at the 2013 Oscars).
In his sophomore cinematic effort, “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” MacFarlane takes center stage as Albert Stark, a mediocre sheep farmer who vehemently detests having to live on the wild Arizona frontier in 1882. If living in the dangerous Old West wasn’t bad enough, MacFarlane’s character gets dumped by his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) who’s become smitten with the wealthy and mustachioed Foy (Neil Patrick Harris).
Things get spiced up when Albert eventually falls for the gun-slinging new-girl-town, Anna (Charlize Theron), who is secretly married to Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson) — a fearsome outlaw.
While the film boasts a star-studded supporting cast, MacFarlane falters as the film’s heroic lead, lacking the on-screen gravitas of a bonafide movie star. It’s a major detriment to his character, as Albert’s few bright moments are overshadowed by long streches of glib, uninteresting banter. It’s not that the “Family Guy” creator can’t be funny in the flesh, he just seems unusually bland when he’s not in the middle of a scathing diatribe or a comedic schtick.
MacFarlane even admits that he wasn’t the first choice to play Albert, as he recently told the “Today” show that Paul Rudd was up for the lead, but turned it down. Considering the character’s cynical hipster tendancies, Rudd, who’s played the loveable cynic a thousand times over in comedies such as “Role Models” and “Dinner for Schmucks,” would have been a perfect fit in this film.
“I’m like the poor man’s Paul Rudd,” MacFarlane told “Today,” and unfortunately, as a leading man, this rings true.
While MacFarlane’s Albert is forgettable at best, the film also suffers from lazy, clichéd writing that relies too heavily on shocking sight gags and scatalogical humor. The irony is that some of the movie’s biggest laughs are disgusting, gross-out scenes, such as Harris’s Foy uncontrollably defecating in a hat or when a giant block of ice decapitates a laborer.
These are the only jokes that stir up any type of emotions. The rest simply fall flat.
Despite the issues, there are a few bright spots in this somtimes humorous western flick, including the roles of the supporting cast and several notable cameos.
Harris’s mustache twirling Foy is a scene stealer, especially during the film’s Broadway style dance number (it wouldn’t be a MacFarlane work if there wasn’t a musical homage). Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman also shine as the virginal shoemaker and his prostitute girlfriend who decide not to consumate their relationship until after they are married.
“A Million Ways to Die” also boasts some stunning desert cinematography by Michael Barrett, highlighted by breath-taking shots of Monument Valley. Joel McNeely turns in an impressive, orchestral score that does justice to the western comedy genre.
But for everything that works in the film, there are a million ways it fails to resonate with the audience. You may find MacFarlane’s latest flick fun at times, but don’t expect to die laughing.Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and on Twitter @MattchidaMMA.