A Million Ways to Die in the West and the Fall of Seth MacFarlane
It’d be easy to say I regret it. I don’t. It was that or the one where Jon Hamm is some sort of rich guy holding a cell phone in front of the Taj Mahal. It was a no-win situation, and I’d rather see Seth MacFarlane ruin westerns forever than see Jon Hamm effortlessly coast through an inspirational sports movie.
The worst thing is I laughed at parts of it. That gave me pause. Just for the catharsis, I almost wanted to approach people in the parking lot and say “hey, if you were in that theater with me tonight, you observed me in a state of weakness.” I wanted to put signs on telephone poles: “I laughed at Seth MacFarlane for inside baseball reasons. It’s cool, I used to live in North Hollywood.”
Laughing at this movie is exactly like enjoying the cinematography in a porno. Even if I’m totally right to have that response, I can’t share the information with anybody. I’d need historically unprecedented interpersonal skills to pull it off without sounding like Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. “Look. I can explain. There’s a square dance scene I laughed at, because there’s this obnoxious Bill Maher cameo.” People cross the street when you say shit like that.
It’s not just that the movie is inept on a script level (it is), or that Seth MacFarlane grossly overestimated his acting chops by starring in it (he did). Depending on how upset I am with where my life ended up, those can even be selling points. The problem is the essential ugliness of the thing: this movie takes place in a moral universe entirely subservient to Seth MacFarlane’s ego.
For all the faux-humility of the “look, a western for college kids” trailer, here we have Seth MacFarlane’s cowboy complex given studio backing. For about 30 minutes, mostly in the third act, the damn thing isn’t even trying to be a comedy: it’s just MacFarlane making a western starring himself, and he shoots himself as lovingly as possible, barring a few instances of unconvincing self-deprecation.
It’s humiliating to witness. It’s humiliating on a primal level, a miscalculation caused by total social insulation. To be as needlessly charitable, it’s like when Johnny Cash thought “Chicken in Black” had chart potential before his kids sat him down and told him he needed to rethink his career. It’s dread and humiliation and despair commingling. It’s such a personal failure, such an intimate failure, that I might as well have watched a Seth MacFarlane sex tape.
It’s the same issue he’s had since he left Cartoon Network. Sure, he can be funny, but unless you’re blind drunk with four other advertising majors, every laugh is immediately followed by six or seven things you have to apologize for, and it’s just not worth it. Every decent Simpsons or Albert Brooks homage is surrounded by a parade of amoral hackery because nobody had the wherewithal to make him tone it down.
This is not to say MacFarlane isn’t skilled. He’s alright at making breezy children’s cartoons, which is what this is, but he continually wrecks it with gross-out gags that would have been unfortunate in a late ’90s Farrelly brothers movie and are beyond indefensible here. It’s not even gross-out humor done out of love for the genre. It’s gross-out humor done out of condescension. “I’m not really doing this joke – didn’t you catch that reference to Stephen Foster earlier?”
And the love story that keeps the movie from disintegration is a pick-up artist fantasy that might as well have been stolen from a Reddit “forever alone” thread. It’s the story of an antisocial “nice guy” who meets the perfect woman out of structural convenience and magic. Which might have skirted junk-comedy acceptability if the “perfect woman” wasn’t a redditor’s idea of a perfect woman – you know, a supermodel who loves whiskey and owns every Hunter S. Thompson book and would rather build her own PC than buy an Xbox. And who is Charlize Theron.
All the while, MacFarlane is so sure of his excellence that he recites lines as though he’s doing a bit about westerns. It’s easy to imagine this movie taking life at 10 p.m. at some open-mic. “Yeah man, it’s tough. I don’t even know. I watch a lot of westerns. You watch westerns? The old west is bullshit, man. Look, alright, it’s, I’m a cowboy, right, I could just die. Everything kills you in the old west. Kinda wish we could go back to that, man. Wouldn’t that be crazy?”
Which is all you need to know, really. A Million Ways to Die in the West is exactly what would happen if you met a random performer at the Hollywood Improv, fed him some coke, and told him to write a western, with all the narcissism, condescension and kneejerk misogyny that entails.
It’s tough to say why it’s bombing though. Sure, it’s horrible, but that’s not a useful metric. If I had to guess, it’s because you can see it’s a vanity project from a mile away: it’s the work of a TV mogul so surrounded by yes-men that he thinks he can star in a western. Could the movie have been fixed? No, because everything is wrong with it at once. But can Seth MacFarlane the person be salvaged from the wreckage? Maybe, if he fires his entourage and finds somebody to kick his ego back down to human levels. He’s simply gotten too famous for his own good.