Cartoon guy shoots and misses in spoof
A Million Ways to Die in the West
By Seth MacFarlane Canongate, 208pp, $24.99 (HB) SETH MacFarlane is a monster of success. He’s the man behind the multi-billion-dollar Family Guy cartoon empire. He wrote and produced a wildly popular film called Ted, about a foulmouthed enchanted teddy bear. He is the producer of a documentary series about space hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. He sang at The Proms. He hosted the Oscars. He wants to be on Broadway. He will be on Broadway. He wants to write an Oklahoma! for the 21st century, a folk opera for our times. Why not?
Who else but this winning prodigy, this babyfaced magician who transforms the most banal vulgarities into glittering accomplishment?
Now he is an author. His first novel is a spoof Western adapted from a screenplay he co-wrote with regular Family Guy contributors Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild. The film opens here in late June. Need we add that, apart from writing and producing the film, MacFarlane also directs and stars?
A Million Ways to Die in the West celebrates the unlikely adventures of Albert Stark, a timid sheep farmer in the ultra-violent frontier town
April 19-20, 2014 of Old Stump, Arizona. Albert considers himself a decent, sensible coward in an unbearably bloody and backwards Old West world. When his girlfriend dumps him for dodging a suicidal gunfight, he decides it’s time to give up on sheep and return to the relative civilisation of San Francisco. He is distracted from this resolution, however, by the arrival of an enigmatic stranger, a beautiful woman who can ride a horse and shoot a gun as good as any man.
“Yes, I’m a little bit cocky,” declares Anna, “but with these tits I can afford to be.”
Anna is cooling her boots in Old Stump while her husband, a cardboard villain of purest evil, is off chasing bullion and slaughtering in- nocents. Of course, she immediately falls for Albert’s milquetoast charms. Who wouldn’t? He sounds exactly like Seth MacFarlane.
Will the happy couple make good their getaway before Anna’s lunatic husband reappears? Or will it all end with a high-noon showdown?
Even true MacFarlane fans shouldn’t set their expectations too high: this book is more starved than a drought-stricken steer, and a lot closer to a slicked-up film treatment than a genuine novelisation. Briefly sketched set pieces alternate with chunks of modern, slangy banter, irregularly punctuated by gross-out gags, usually involving the spontaneous discharge of one bodily fluid or another.
Some of this is good fun, especially the animal characters (always a strength with MacFarlane), but a lot of it reads too much like a clunky description of how the jokes should look and sound on the big screen. The film is already in the can, as they say, but the director is still coaching the lines:
“Charlie stared blankly for a beat’’ ... ‘‘Albert stared for a beat’’ ... ‘‘It took Albert a beat to decipher that one’’ ... ‘‘Albert stared at him for a beat, uncertain whether he’d heard correctly’’.
Action. Cut. Let’s try it again, but this time hold for — another beat.
The problem is MacFarlane has no real feeling for the genre he is ostensibly spoofing. There are miles of featureless prairie between A Million Ways and Louis L’Amour or Zane Grey or, indeed, the films of John Ford. Where’s the atmosphere? It all seems so brief and shabby, like a Hollywood set viewed from the wrong angle, buildings half-built, extras milling about uncostumed and airconditioned caravans in the distance, where, through a small window, MacFarlane himself can be seen sitting at a laptop, bashing out his first novel between takes.
This is transparently a 211-page commercial for the film. So why would the fabulously busy MacFarlane waste his energies with this facile stuff when it could just as easily have been knocked together by some anonymous studio hack? It’s all part of his prosaic genius: he’s the perfect corporate shill, the man who, as an undergraduate, dreamed of nothing higher than working for Disney.
A Million Ways is the kind of book you could almost read in your sleep. MacFarlane knows better than anyone how to gratify tired, overstimulated minds, demanding only the absolute minimum of cerebral effort. If his success really is monstrous, that’s only because it springs from our own cultural weariness, from a collective imagination near to exhaustion, but still unwilling to look away from the screen, even as it slips toward the reasonless sleep of pure caprice. Andrew Fuhrmann is performing arts editor of Time Out Melbourne.
Seth MacFarlane in a scene from the film A Million Ways to Die in the West