Cartoon guy shoots and misses in spoof

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Andrew Fuhrmann

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

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