Seth MacFarlane can do everything but grow up. The comic mind behind FOX's animated juggernaut Family Guy, along with American Dad! and The Cleveland Show, MacFarlane can draw, write and voice-act a galaxy cartoon voices. He hosted the Oscars in 2013. He sings, with one album of big-band standards already out and another on the way. He's a massively successful producer, too, most recently for the Cosmos reboot. Lately, MacFarlane has even ventured into feature films. His first effort was 2012's Ted, which he wrote, directed and co-starred in, voice-acting as a teddy bear come to life. That film became the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all time, surpassing The Hangover.
MacFarlane also wrote, directed, produced and stars in the new film, A Million Ways to Die in the West, which opens today. This time, though, he's the lead, not hiding that broad smile behind an animated bear. MacFarlane plays an inept sheepherder named Albert who gets over his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) with the help of a mysterious, beautiful stranger (Charlize Theron). A comic western, A Million Ways is worth watching for its metric ton of laughs. Yet, it's ultimately dispiriting because virtually all those laughs come from empty calories. Therein lies what makes MacFarlane such a frustrating genius. He has the talent and drive to become one of Hollywood's great comic auteurs, but his narcissism and perpetual adolescence keeps him from doing so.
For a precedent, look to Mel Brooks. Like MacFarlane, Brooks mixes transgressive lowbrow humor with occasional bursts of social satire. Like MacFarlane, Brooks wrote for TV early in his career and his voice was also famous before his face—see the 2000 Old Man. The two even share a fondness for spoofing Broadway. A Million Ways, filled with fart jokes and sight gags, overtly pays thematic homage to Brooks' seminal Blazing Saddles. The plot, though, is closer to Bob Hope's The Paleface and Don Knotts' The Shakiest Gun in the West—fish-out-of-water stories where nebbish greenhorns confront the hazardous frontier.
Million Ways certainly looks and sounds like a big budget western—replete with expansive, John Fordian cinematography savoring the iconic Monument Valley sunsets and a sweeping score by Joel McNeely. The lighting is excellent. The western town of Old Stump looks beautifully forlorn. The editing, desperately important in a comedy so reliant on sight gags, never falters. The cast around MacFarlane is uniformly excellent. Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman are affably bizarre as lovers. Neil Patrick Harris is a gem, of course. His character is an Old West Barney Stinson—even winking at the audience by using a trademarked Barney catch phrase. Christopher Lloyd spends about three seconds on screen, yet gets the film's biggest laugh. There is even some genuinely insightful humor—like a joke about kids playing with hoops and sticks that mocks our modern anxiety about children warped through technology.
But the fresh moments are buried in an avalanche of shit jokes, violent slapstick and the hackneyed use of profanity as a punchline. When the gags do pause, we are left with an utterly perfunctory love story starring a not-terribly-compelling actor whose climatic revelations have all the profundity of an Upworthy listicle. That what's so frustrating about MacFarlane. Here is this enormously inventive, trenchant and witty man who consistently panders with, slaptick, backstage cultural references and scatological humor at the expense of story and character; a penchant notoriously lambasted by the "Cartoon Wars" episodes of South Park.
Worse still is MacFarlane's predilection for shocking with slurs. During a recent appearance on Jimmy Fallon to promote Million Ways, MacFarlane hilariously preempted the bad reviews he expected the film to get. The last joke made fun of FOX News, a frequent target, implying the network is racist and sexist. This comes, keep in mind, from a man who used his Oscars opening monologue to mock Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek for their ethnic accents and to play on the ancient slur that all black people look alike by pretending to confuse Denzel Washington and Eddie Murphy. This is the guy who gave us Mort in Family Guy, virtually a textbook of anti-Semitic stereotypes, and who offers up swishy, fawning, hankie-waving homosexuals in Million Ways to Die.
Somehow, MacFarlane thinks we should see that his jokes are meta—that he isn't really saying terrible things about women, blacks, gays and Jews, but he's doing so ironically to lambaste the pretensions of a hypersensitive society. That distinction is microfiber thin and almost certainly lost on most of his young, white male audience. The net effect—whatever edgy, ironic subtext is intended—is to encourage the use of cheap, mean, hurtful and dated slurs.
True edginess for this enormously talented man would be getting out of his own way. First, stop trying to channel Don Rickles. There's nothing thought provoking about racist and sexist stereotypes. Secondly, create a likable protagonist and a story with substance. MacFarlane is clearly capable of writing sophisticated, sympathetic characters with interesting stories to tell. Brian, the Griffin's dog on Family Guy, is one of the wittiest characters in sitcom history, and the plots that revolve around him are inevitably the most heartfelt and human.
Step two is for MacFarlane to stay behind the camera. Again Mel Brooks is an instructive antecedent. Great though he might be, Brooks couldn't stop casting himself as the leading man, and his work suffered for it. Brooks best films, Young Frankenstein and The Producers along with Blazing Saddles, have one thing in common—none of them star Mel Brooks.
MacFarlane should avoid a similar fate. He might be a great animator, writer, voice-actor, producer and director. His acting, though, is much like his singing—competent at best. On screen, he dutifully hits every note, but he never shows enough emotional depth and vulnerability to be a compelling presence. In Million Ways, trying to exchange meaningful dialogue with Oscar-winning Charlize Theron, MacFarlane is hopelessly outclassed. He claimed in interviews that he originally wanted Paul Rudd to play Albert. Fat chance, but Rudd's sensitivity would have made him a better choice.
MacFarlane could emulate Woody Allen, who managed to move from the zaniness of Bananas to the greatness of Annie Hall and Zelig. He could be like Judd Apatow, whose films have matured from the teen comedy Superbad to the adult themes of This Is 40. MacFarlane, in fact, is 40. Yet, he still wants to shock us with profanity, poop and pratfalls like a teenage boy. He is in danger of becoming, like Brooks, a comic innovator who never matures enough to make a film with substance.
But here's the thing: We all have to grow up sometime. It happened to MacFarlane's character inA Million Ways to Die. It happened at the end of Ted, too. Both boy and bear learn to let go of childish things. We're still waiting, and hoping, that Seth MacFarlane will do the same.
Hampton Stevens is a writer based in Kansas City. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, ESPN the Magazine, Maxim and more.
Photo by Alamy