"Consistently inconsistent" might sound like a contradiction in terms, but it is still the best way to describe how I feel about Seth McFarlane's work. I haven't caught a glimpse of Family Guy in years, but every episode I've ever seen was all over the place, with some of the jokes working, some of them failing, and with a lot of the edgier jokes coming across as more crass than funny.
I had a similarly mixed reaction to Ted, his movie about the teddy bear that magically came to life and then un-magically became a pothead: it had some good ideas, but it was too slapdash and self indulgent to actually gel as a movie. (My review at the time was based on a joke in Idiocracy: "he doesn't care whose ass it is or why it's farting.") Basically, my feeling about McFarlane was that he was always going to be funny enough that I could understand why people like him, but his lack of a filter was always going to keep me from being satisfied with his work.
A Million Ways to Die in the West is his most recent movie, and it does have a little bit of that unevenness, but overall it's still a big step forward. It is his ode to Blazing Saddles, a raunchy anachronistic send up of the old West, and he sticks to that tone with a surprising amount of consistency. There aren't any arbitrary pop culture references or random cutaways... Well, there is one arbitrary pop culture reference - Albert, the film's main character, runs into Doc Brown from Back to the Future at one point, but at least Back to the Future 3 took place in the Wild West, so it's not completely unreasonable. And there is one random cutaway, but it's part of a drug trip, so at least he bothered to frame it instead of just tossing it out there. So there are at least two exceptions to what I was just saying about McFarlane's improved focus - but still, only having two self indulgent scenes is a marked improvement over Ted.
For the most part, the film's running gags have good legs. Albert is always ranting about how unpleasant the west is, and how unnecessarily deadly it is, and there's a cynicism to his complaints that I enjoyed. I don't want to accuse the movie of having depth, because for the most part the jokes are surface level riffs on words like "cholera" that we all know from the Oregon Trail video game, but there's also a secondary level of "life shouldn't be this hard" to the jokes that I can sympathize with. Albert is written from a modern perspective, as a guy who understands that indoor plumbing is possible and that there will be a time when cholera isn't a common cause of death, so his commentary about the general shittiness of the 1800s exposes a certain amount of existential bitterness. It was shit luck that had those people get born then, when times were much tougher, and it was good luck that had us be born now, when we get to ride the gravy train. But nobody ever said that life was fair.
Don't get me wrong, however - it's still a Seth McFarlane film. For every joke about the arbitrariness of life that seems to have a point to it, there's another joke that boils down to "farts are funny". Early on in them movie a man farts himself to death in a saloon. Later another man has to shit into a hat in the middle of a duel on main street. Towards the end of the movie Albert gets pissed on by a sheep he's hiding under. I really don't want to oversell this movie, because while I find McFarlane to be a mixed bag, I'm well aware that a lot of people can't stand him at all. If you're in that camp, you're not going to see the improvements I'm talking about.
Even if a Million Ways to Die in the West is still imperfect, it still felt like a step in the right direction to me. He established the world he was working in and then stayed inside that world, and that consistency really helped the movie sail past it's bumpier sections. Now if he could just ease back on all the fart jokes... But you know, Rome wasn't built in a day. They had to grasp the idea of "editing" one day, and "stop farting" at a later time. There's still time for McFarlane to move up from "consistently inconsistent" to "consistently acceptable." Here's hoping he pulls it off.