AND, ONLY 43 OF THEM INVOLVE SHEEP...
Cowardly sheep farmer Albert has spent his entire life avoiding conflict at all costs, a feat not easily achieved living in the Old West of 1882. When he falls for a mysterious new woman who rolls into town, he catches the ire of the most feared gunslinger in the territory, who just so happens to be married to the very woman that Albert loves. Also, pooping in hats.
Seth MacFarlane has become pretty ubiquitous over the last decade or so, and it’s tough not to compare anything new that he does with his previous works. In fact, he practically dares you to do it. Each new piece seems to try a little harder to break his typical mold, but ultimately succumbs to the urge to give us much of the same.
First and foremost, I should say that the most successful jokes in this film are those that have fun with the conventions of the western genre. When they are not being too obvious, and stick to the subtle route, they can be absolutely hilarious. But, these are too few and far between, leading me to believe that there is actually a much better movie in there somewhere if MacFarlane and his writers had stuck with their guns and risked not giving us a Family Guy retread.
Instead, MacFarlane does exactly what we expect him to do – he drives each joke into the ground until it’s no longer funny. With Family Guy, this is also quite common, but in those instances, that actually becomes the joke and it finds its way back around to being funny again. Here, it just becomes repetition. There are a couple of jokes that start off clever, but once they’ve delivered the same without much variation, it becomes stale. We get it – Sarah Silverman’s job description as a prostitute is certainly a crazy juxtaposition to her attempt to keep her real relationship strictly Christian. We get it – nobody smiled in photos in the 1800s (this one remained funnier a little longer than others, but was still overdone). Admittedly, the mustache riff is still amusing the entire way through (even warranting its own song and dance number), so what do I know?
The other old habit that the writers tend to fall back on here that poses an even odder problem is the reliance upon pop culture and anachronisms. MacFarlane’s lead character seems to know that things are going to be much better in the future (a few times, you may even think he has access to Google) and oddly has to explain to others how things work in the “present.” It would normally be nitpicking to point this out, but because it serves as the crux of so many gags, it calls attention to itself. A large portion of the jokes will elicit laughs, but just come across as too modern and don’t fit in. It’s hard to reference pop culture when your film takes place in a time period in which culture has not yet popped (one exception being a rather funny cameo by a character from a completely different movie that works if you allow yourself to put the pieces together, but you may not feel like bothering at that point). These types of bits work fine in a quick cutaway on Family Guy, but here they just come across as awkward (not funny awkward, though).
There’s also a vexing timing issue with quite a few of the jokes that causes them to land flat (if it seems that I’m analyzing the humor too deeply, remember that this is a comedy and the jokes are what it is built upon). A bit involving something slipped into a character’s drink doesn’t pay off until a couple of scenes AFTER you expect it to, and even then it devolves into the easiest, most base joke possible. It could have been something predicated upon suspense of when it’s going to happen, but comes across more as a last-minute rewrite or re-edit. Also, a late film scene involving Native-Americans is completely killed by the fact that they are making up their language as they go, while we have already read the punchline in the subtitles far before they get around to saying it, creating a distracting delay. They should have chosen for the laugh to be in the fake language (Mila Kunis) or its translation, but going for both makes it all fall flat. Again, timing.
Not all is bad, however. MacFarlane is a very likeable lead (even if he appears to always be on the verge of grinning at his own material) and has surprisingly great chemistry with Charlize Theron as his potential love interest. The rest of the actors, particularly Neil Patrick Harris, Liam Neeson, Giovanni Ribisi, and Ralph Garman all seem to be having a great time, so you’ll enjoy watching them. Also, as a director, MacFarlane has gone to great pains to create an authentic Western feel. Starting with opening credits that ape the traditional font and music to great looking sets to day players that look directly transported from a John Wayne flick, it all feels like the real thing. Oddly enough, it’s MacFarlane’s character that seems the most out-of-place, but that’s perhaps part of the joke (that uncertainty is genuine on my part).
Make no mistake, there are certainly laughs to be had here, with jabs at the Old West, a hilarious throw-away gag involving “stick hoop,” and a take on bar fights that is so on-the-nose, you’ll be surprised you haven’t seen it before. But, the majority of the film meanders, uncertain of exactly what it wants to be. The story is pretty slight, only serving as a string to hang the gags on, so the running time also feels a bit long for what there is. They could have easily dialed it back to just 750,000 ways to die in the West and we would have been just fine. It’s not as successful as MacFarlane’s day job, or even his first foray as a director (Ted), but it’s fine for a few shits and giggles. Unfortunately, because they often go for the easy potty humor, the shits greatly outweigh the giggles…