Let’s start by clearing up two misconceptions: neither is Seth MacFarlane the death of comedy, nor is the key to enjoying his work “lightening up.” Regardless of how you feel about him, to go into a Seth MacFarlane movie or TV show these days is to at least partially surrender the expectation of surprise. For me, he’s become a bit like the Ron Paul of comedy, with three good ideas for every one REALLY bad one, three genuinely funny gags to one so bad it makes me groan until I start to see flashy things in my field of vision. He’s not unfunny or anti-funny, and he’s decently clever, it just depends how you weigh that big groan against the laughs, and how much you mind him reusing the same bits over and over and over again. I don’t like to think of comedy as a slot machine, but MacFarlane can make it feel that way — the same moving parts, the occasional bust, the occasional jackpot, sometimes a cute theme. Ooh, this one has cowboy hats instead of cherries!
In fact, I bet you already had a Seth MacFarlane checklist for Million Ways in your head. Is there a “doin’ drugs” scene? A comedically extended fight scene? A gross-out poop scene? An overlong musical number? A totally superfluous non-joke reference to some other movie? The answers are yes, yes, yes, yes, and two, actually, including one after the credits, respectively. (Ugh, that post-credits scene).
It’s not the crassness of it I mind – though it’s often used against MacFarlane, “crass” is not a valid criticism of comedy. In fact, some of the best things about it are the bluest, such as Sarah Silverman’s Old West prostitute telling a John to “shoot that dirty cowboy cum all over my face!” (I would argue that there’s a certain poetry to the phrase “dirty cowboy cum”).
What I mind is the formula. For me, the best kind of comedy is the kind that makes me wonder why I’m laughing at it while I’m laughing at it. There’s something supernatural about jokes you can’t reduce to simple explanation. Being able to recognize a joke formula is like watching a magician perform an illusion after you already know how it works. You can admire his skills as a craftsman, but you never believe that it’s magic.
The longer you watch a MacFarlane movie, the less magic it offers. And shit, man, watching the old bad-guy-gets-a-laxative-slid-into-his-drink bit for the umpteenth time is the comedic equivalent of a magician reaching into his top hat to pull out a rabbit and just flipping me off instead.
I still haven’t seen all of Ted. A few months back, I switched it on for five minutes when it was on cable, just in time to see a scene where the Teddy Bear, voiced by Seth MacFarlane, does an impression of Family Guy‘s Peter Griffin, a character also voiced by Seth MacFarlane. Get it? They’re both the same guy! Gold star for audience recognition! I turned it off thinking it was one of the most painfully unfunny movies ever. Then a few weeks ago, a friend had the Ted DVD lying around, and we switched it on after a long day of golf and barbecue. I caught about the first 20 minutes of it before I fell asleep, and I woke up thinking it had actually been pretty funny.
Both Ted and Million Ways lead me to believe that 20 to 30 minutes is the optimum length for a Seth MacFarlane comedy. The remainder is mostly those same jokes driven into the ground, plus an extemporaneous song and dance number that’s more theatrical than it is funny, and a couple of non-joke pop-culture references. There’s an excruciating Peter Griffin moment late in Million Ways where Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown shows up for absolutely no reason other than to high five the audience for having seen Back to the Future (“Bro, remember Pepsi??”). But a guy behind me did say “Dude, that was awesome!” when it happened, so I guess I know why it exists (idiots love being congratulated).
To be fair, there was also a Gilbert Gottfried cameo that came nearly as close to breaking the fourth wall that was legitimately hilarious.
I honestly didn’t want to talk about the plot, because it’s mostly beside the point in a movie like this, but a few things have to be said. The movie opens with a funny narration about the old west and how rough it was, culminating with a bit about “It was so rough, that in 1886, Miss America looked like this!” with a picture of an old broad who looks like she hews her own tampons from hemp and barley. It’s a good bit, but then it’s IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWED by a shot of the love interest, played by Amanda Seyfried, the epitome of the doe-eyed ingenue. Between Chef and Million Ways, I’ve now seen Jon Favreau write himself into a love triangle between Scarlett Johansson and Sofia Vergara, and Seth MacFarlane write himself into a love triangle between Amanda Seyfried and Charlize Theron, in the space of two or three weeks. I like preposterously hot women too, but hey, why stop there? Maybe the plot could be that your character writes love letters to them on the moon using his enormous dick.
The thing about the “two super hot chicks in a love triangle” trope is that it can be explained away in a vacuum – okay, Favreau’s character is a famous chef. Okay Seth MacFarland is handsome enough and a funny guy, and okay anyway haven’t you seen lots of average looking dudes dating beautiful women in real life? But as a creator you also have to recognize when something you’re making is part of a pattern. I’ve seen beautiful women with schlubby dudes in real life (hell, I’ve lived it), handsome men with average women, and everything in between. So it’s not that it’s totally unbelievable, it’s just that there are at least 100 Seth-MacFarland-juggling-Charlize-Theron-and-Amanda-Seyfried movies for every Melissa McCarthy-juggling-Brad-Pitt-and-Tom-Hardy movie. Also, it’s cutting directly against the reality of the movie world you’ve just created. Follow up on your own damned jokes. It’s pretty clear you’ve nothing against being self-referential.
Furthermore, when the plot of the film is that Charlize Theron is a badass gun slinger and Seth MacFarlane is a manic coward, why write a plot where she has to spend the last 20 minutes playing damsel in distress while he mans up? If the gags are mostly interchangeable to the plot, why does the plot have to be so completely hokey? I’m not going to evaluate Seth MacFarlane like he’s trying to create social commentary, but it’s hard to enjoy what good jokes there are (and there are good jokes) when the world-building is so brain-meltingly lazy. It really doesn’t have to be.
GRADE: C+ (the plus is for Gilbert Gottfried and cowboy cum)
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.