Seth MacFarlane is a man prodigious of voice but rarely seen. Most known for his animated FOX series Family Guy and American Dad – for which he plays a plethora of characters – the writer/actor/director has a knack for slipping into unexpected places.He voiced the ectoplasmic agent Johann Kraus in Hellboy 2, hosted the Oscars in 2013, dropped a big band album in 2011 and if you watch carefully you'll see him get shot in the short-lived ABC drama Flashforward – not that you'd really want to, since that show was terrible, but fortunately for us the clip is on youtube.
But despite being a truly prolific talent in Hollywood, his sophomore directorial feature A Million Ways To Die in the West is the first time audiences will have a chance to see MacFarlane on the big screen, in corporeal form, in a starring role. And true to form, MacFarlane sticks the landing.
It's a crime to compare anything to Blazing Saddles, and yet I just can't help myself. Although inferior to Saddles, with West, MacFarlane has crafted a politically incorrect, laugh-out-loud funny, pseudo-western full of biting satire, shocking gags and a dash of heart. It inhabits a world between fantasy and history, with characters possessing a dissonant sense of self-awareness about the horribly archaic conditions of the Western Frontier.
MacFarlane plays Albert, a caustic sheep farmer living in Old Stump, Arizona who would rather run than fight and has had it up to here with the perils of the 1880s west, in which everything that is not you is trying to kill you. He gets tossed by his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) for being 'yellow' and is ready to hot foot it to the coast when his life is interrupted by the arrival of Anna (Charlize Theron).
Unbeknownst to Albert, Anna is the reluctant wife of legendary outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (played in all his Irish glory by Liam Neeson) who has dropped his wife in Old Stump while he and his men lay low after a stage coach job.
Albert and Anna bond over their mutual disdain for frontier living and plot to win back Loiuse's heart, but the inevitable occurs, setting up a showdown between Albert and Clive when the gunslinger rides into town.
The movie follows MacFarlane's typical style of trading 100-gags-a-minute chaos with ambling tangents that weave their way back into the plot – as well as one of the best cameos in the history of film comedies. With so much mud thrown on the wall, not all of it sticks – and at least two moments pushed beyond my squeamish tolerances – but West benefits from having a plot structure to invest in rather than the increasingly common comedy practice of setting up a premise as an afterthought that is largely disregarded for a 90-minute joke machine.
West is at its best when it's focused around Albert and Anna, and loses steam when it drifts toward the secondary characters. Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman seem particularly underutilized as engaged friends of Albert's, whose characters exist only to perpetuate a running joke about Christians saving themselves for marriage – despite the fact that Silverman's character works as a lady of ill repute.
But despite its flaws it's a winning creation, confirming that Ted wasn't a fluke and suggesting that MacFarlane might have a lot more to show us as he grows comfortable revealing himself.
*A Million Ways to Die in the West opens nationwide on Friday, May 30.