Arizona, the 1880s. Dumped by his lover after swerving a duel, sheep farmer Albert Stark (MacFarlane) falls for the new girl in town (Theron), only to discover she’s the wife of a green-eyed gunslinger (Neeson).
“The secret of comedy,” Steve Martin once observed, “is the ability to make people laugh without making them puke.” He is, of course, taking the mick but in his own stupid-wise way, Martin has a point. Big American comedies live or die on gut reaction. Blazing Saddles has the campfire fart-off. There’s Something About Mary has the zipper of pain. A Million Ways, the lead debut of Seth MacFarlane, bats out the punchlines and gross-out splats but there’s no stand-out gag, no “You’ve-got-to-see-this-bit” bit. On the Steve Martin scale? Barely a burp.
The set-up, and it shrinks through repetition, is that MacFarlane plays a modern guy “born into the wrong time and place”. The opening scene, in which he talks his way out of a duel by simulating a blow-job, pretty much sets the tone: beamed into the Wild West, MacFarlane’s neurotic sheep farmer is more like a snarky stand-up act trolling the frontier. Occasionally the material hits but it’s far too arch to qualify as parody. Instead, MacFarlane falls for the wife of a bandit and the film wanders into rom-com territory. If A Million Ways has a big plus, it’s Charlize Theron, who breezes in and rides off with the movie. The star-wastage elsewhere is criminal. Liam Neeson flicks to auto-badass; Amanda Seyfried shoot blanks; and Sarah Silverman plays a Christian hooker who refuses to have sex with fiancé Giovanni Ribisi – a one-joke role shared by two actors.
Stretched over two-hours, this is plodding, sketchy stuff. What’s surprising is that MacFarlane, a voice-over artist, is a spare tyre in his own star vehicle. He beams and smirks and drops sarcasm bombs, but the invitation he hands out to audiences is marked Laugh With, not Laugh At - the undignified business end of any screen comedian. Opting for a nebbish hero, MacFarlane’s varnished, shiny-toothed delivery hints at the previously unthinkable – a Gameshow Woody Allen. This is not easy to warm to. Neil Patrick Harris has to shit in a hat. When a sheep pisses on MacFarlane, it doesn’t even get his hair wet. Maybe it’s the perk of directing yourself, but offered the butt of a joke, he always uses somebody else’s – literally, in the case of Liam Neeson, whose most memorable moment is getting a flower planted in his bum-crack.
Family Guy fans will appreciate seeing the voice in the flesh but the lasting impression is of MacFarlane as the asbestos compere to his own big-budget comedy roast, flaming everyone and everything but never getting burnt himself. Great fun for MacFarlane. Everyone else? Not so much.
A Million Jokes Die In The West. Well, not a million. Most of them. Most of the jokes die in the West.