When you see Seth MacFarlane’s name in the credits for a movie or TV show, one thing’s for certain: there will be farts.
The smirking wiseass behind Family Guy, American Dad, and 2012’s talking-bear comedy Ted has made his name on raunchy, off-color humor and endless pop-culture references. He even managed to make Ricky Gervais look like a comparatively classy host after infamously singing “We Saw Your Boobs” to a roomful of top actresses at the 2013 Oscars.
But as much as those lowbrow leanings have defined his career, there’s also the less discussed, more sentimental side of MacFarlane. It’s the side on display when he lovingly emulates golden-age musicals and Bob Hope road comedies on Family Guy, or when he wrings surprising emotion from moments like that show’s death-of-Brian episode or the third act of Ted. MacFarlane is at his best when he allows the light and dark sides of his personality to coexist, and thankfully that’s exactly what he does in A Million Ways to Die in the West.
Serving as director, co-writer, and star, MacFarlane uses Million Ways as a vehicle to essentially play himself and make snide observations about how dangerous the American frontier used to be. Detailing potential causes of death ranging from the expected (gunfights, cholera, snakebites) to the not-so-much (giant blocks of ice, razor-sharp tumbleweeds), MacFarlane gets impressive mileage out of the film’s central joke.
The humor runs the gamut from stand-up-style monologues to unabashedly silly pratfalls, and though a lot of the jokes are predictable, many of them land. Even a cringe-inducing carnival game depicting runaway slaves gets a surprising payoff later on in the movie (thanks to one of many surprise cameos) that makes the tasteless setup worth it.
Here in his first live-action starring role, MacFarlane is hardly the world’s most versatile or convincing actor. But the anachronistic, winking way he stands apart from the otherwise-grim Old West is part of what makes the humor work. It also helps that he surrounds himself with high-caliber actors like Charlize Theron (her radiant charm effortlessly balancing out his adolescent smarm), Liam Neeson, Neil Patrick Harris, and Sarah Silverman. As a potty-mouthed prostitute who refuses to have sex with her fiancé (Giovanni Ribisi) until marriage, Silverman’s bright-eyed performance earns some of the movie’s best laughs.
While MacFarlane might balk at the prospect of living in the Old West, it does little to detract from his affection for old Westerns. The film’s opening credits and accompanying overture set an old-fashioned tone — seriously, how many movies take the time for a straightforward opening credit sequence anymore? — and you get the feeling that he’s thrilled to be offering his own spin on the Westerns he watched as a boy.
The sentimental side of MacFarlane is also evidenced by the unlikely romance between his cowardly Albert and Theron’s rugged dream girl Anna. That odd-couple pairing could (and should) have strained credibility, but their easy rapport and flirtatious banter sell the relationship with surprising ease.
Of course, this is also a movie that not only depicts a man violently voiding his bowels in a cowboy hat, but it also shows you what’s in the hat afterward. That brand of humor isn’t for everyone, but if you’re the film’s intended audience, you probably know who you are.
A Million Ways to Die in the West is hardly perfect — MacFarlane’s direction is often uninspired and, as with many comedies, the third act is so concerned with resolving its plot that it forgets to be funny — but it is better than it has any right to be. Thanks to a good amount of wit and some unforgettable gross-out gags, Million Ways is a worthy summer diversion — farts and all.
A Million Ways to Die in the West opens nationwide on Friday, May 30.