Diarrhea humor is, by definition, shitty.
Which isn't to say uncontrollable fecal excretion can't be funny. There's Paul Finch in American Pie, exemplifying his nickname “Shitbreak” by unwittingly using the “Girls” bathroom to drop A-bomb deuces. There's Melissa McBride squatting over a sink to unload in Bridesmaids. The poop jokes work because the movies as a whole have heart; after all, a digestive system can't do much without a functioning ticker.
Judging by a couple of recent Hollywood movies, poop jokes are enjoying a renaissance. Last year, Adam Sandler’s Grown Ups 2 made $250 million and featured Colin Quinn as a middle-aged ice cream parlor employee who uses a soft serve machine to simulate a severe case of the runs. And in director/co-writer/star Seth MacFarlane's A Million Ways to Die in the West (in theaters today), Neil Patrick Harris, playing the douchebag proprietor of an Old West mustache shop, loses a battle against overpowering laxatives, experiences an extreme case of the runs, and defecates into a man’s hat. Self-respecting ticket-buyers will sympathize with the hat.
MacFarlane is something of a poop joke savant. On Family Guy, his long-running animated series on Fox, MacFarlane dabbles in toilet humor frequently, but it’s always pitched in absurdism, like Peter Griffin and Glenn Quagmire singing “I Can’t Poop in Strange Places” during an open mic night. A like-minded strangeness can be felt in MacFarlane’s 2012 directorial debut, Ted, when Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis return home to find the movie's eponymous talking teddy bear hanging out with four prostitutes, one of whom has laid a turd on the carpet. Shy bowels and "loose" hookers: those are effective poop jokes. A Million Ways to Die in the West is, on the other hand, more like a recently shat bed.
MacFarlane has poop joke carte blanche these days because of the $550 million-earning Ted. In the wake of the talking teddy bear flick's surprise success, MacFarlane seemingly has the keys to the Universal Studios kingdom as evidenced by Million Ways' dynamite cast, which includes Charlize Theron and Liam Neeson in rare comedic roles.
Pairing Family Guy's lowest common denominator svengali with award-caliber actors was a potentially brilliant proposition. Theron’s never scooped poo off the floor (like Mila Kunis does in Ted). Neeson's transitioned from a prestige actor to a paycheck-loving, modern-day Charles Bronson, yet lowbrow humor has eluded him so far. Together, they’d bring elegance to MacFarlane’s signature racially-driven, vulgar, self-aware comedy. And thanks to Theron and Neeson, critics all over would understand why longtime Family Guy lovers (like me) have stood up for his sensibilities for so many years now.
None of that has happened, though.
Watching the 116-minute-long A Million Ways to Die in the West last week, I didn’t laugh once. A Million Ways to Die in the West was made by some new incarnation of Seth MacFarlane, one who now embodies all of the criticism his skeptics have unleashed on him over the years. The movie is crass minus any wit, condescending to the audience, and too damn long. It's like MacFarlane is embracing the “He’s an unimaginative hack” title that high-minded critics have lobbed his way for years.
A Million Ways to Die in the West’s first and most obvious flaw is Seth MacFarlane himself. Foolishly trying to add “actor” to his list of career triumphs, MacFarlane headlines as the main character, Albert, a pleasant though unskilled sheep farmer whose gold-digging girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried) has just left him for Harris’ mustache entrepreneur, Foy. Albert’s in the dumps until he meets the beautiful Anna (Theron), a newcomer who encourages Albert to stand up for himself. She helps him challenge Foy to a standoff, and gradually falls in love with the nice-guy sheepherder. The problem is, Anna’s actually in town to hide out while her ruthless gunslinger of a husband, Clinch Leatherwood (Neeson), handles some OT business.
How Theron’s Anna ever gets sprung over Albert is anyone’s guess, since MacFarlane plays the character with an infuriating smugness. MacFarlane doesn’t become Albert so much as read the part with self-entitlement and misplaced pride. It’s almost like he’s holding the screenplay the entire time, reciting lines and trying his hardest not to break from character, look off-screen, and say, “That’s genius, right?”
Which, nope, nothing in A Million Ways to Die in the West is, nor ever flirts with being. Occasionally, MacFarlane and co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild cleverly send-up western movie tropes and the Old West’s stifled ways of living—a running gag about how nobody in Old Timey photographs ever smiled works well enough. Theron is a constant bright spot; giving her stock “love interest” character real heart, she gets the most out of Anna’s familiar tough-lady-with-a-heart-of-gold personality.
But Theron’s too good to be in the same film that, for cheap laughs, resorts to having a well-endowed sheep piss on MacFarlane’s face, or an old man describing one of his farts with, “Ow, that came out of my penis!” Or the labored scene where Albert explains a joke involving a mustached man performing cunnilingus. Or Sarah Silverman playing a prostitute who talks to her virginal boyfriend about the delicateness of their "first time" while there's ejaculate on her cheek.
Or Neil Patrick Harris crapping into someone’s top hat. Or...you get the idea.
A Million Ways to Die in the West pierces this Family Guy fan's heart because, truth be told, it’s not easy being an outspoken Family Guy fan. To be one is to defend your tastes against its myriad haters, people who chastise the show for its ethnic humor and gratuitous pop culture namedropping, e.g., working the Keebler Elves and Judd Hirsch into the same episode, just because.
But what I love is how, during the show’s last few seasons, MacFarlane, empowered by a Willy Wonka-like golden ticket from Fox and their check-writers, has actively tried to run Family Guy off the cliff. You have no fucks left to give when you kill off a character as beloved and crucial as canine Brian Griffin, bask in the fervent online reactions, and then bring Brian back two weeks later, as if it say, “Yeah, I can do that—I’m Seth friggin’ MacFarlane.”
Not to mention, MacFarlane and Family Guy will always be in my best graces for contributing the following video to my life: Peter Griffin and his bizarre obsession with The Trashmen’s cheesy pop record “Surfin’ Bird,” a madcap infatuation that took up the entire first act of the 2008 episode “I Dream of Jesus” and, the first time I watched it, made me laugh ridiculously hard:
Bits like that are surefire litmus tests to see whether you’re on Family Guy’s wavelength or not. An anarchist’s cartoon, MacFarlane’s show dares you to laugh at its singular oddness and reckless abandon; A Million Ways to Die in the West asks nothing of its audience.
There’s none of that “Surfin’ Bird”-level mania in Million Ways. It’s Seth MacFarlane, so there are out-of-nowhere nods to older pop culture moments. The film’s key reference is Albert finding Christopher “Doc” Lloyd fixing up the DeLorean in a shed, pointlessly but, for the most part, endearingly (like every comparable reference on Family Guy) connecting Back to the Future Part III to Million Ways.
That cutaway, similar to the film as a whole, is disposable, a momentary one-note joke. It’s also obvious, unlike Sam “Flash Gordon” Jones’ extended cameo in Ted, or, picking a random Family Guy example, Peter fighting his dry cleaner, Mr. Washee Washee, in an impeccable, 16-bit Street Fighter reenactment. Christopher Lloyd’s A Million Ways to Die in the West guest appearance is sans Mr. Washee Washee’s zaniness—it’s transparent, an Iggy Azalea album cut featuring Debbie Harry simply to earn the “Fancy” rapper some cool points.
Thankfully, MacFarlane doesn’t have Doc do No. 2 into any hats. He’s too busy dumping all over the good will he’s accumulated through Family Guy.
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