Pity the old-timer who, after seeing the posters and only half-watching the commercials, buys a ticket for “A Million Ways to Die in the West” without even a passing awareness of its co-writer, director and star, Seth MacFarlane.
The poor guy may never leave his Barcalounger again.
But for anyone who’s followed MacFarlane through 12 mostly crude seasons of “Family Guy” and the likable raunch of 2012’s “Ted,” the biggest shock may be how subtle — assuming anything that showcases the gamut of bodily fluids could ever be considered subtle — his follow-up really is.
Stepping out of the recording booth where he’s voiced the filthy stuffed animal of “Ted” and half of “Family Guy’s” Griffin clan, MacFarlane stars, somewhat self-consciously, as Albert Stark, a sheep farmer in Old Stump, Ariz. Cursed with a 21st-century sensibility in 1882, Albert yearns to be anywhere but the frontier. It’s a horrible place, he notes, in giving the Western comedy its title, where if the gunfights or maladies don’t kill you, the treatments often will.
When he backs out of a duel over grazing rights, Albert is dumped by his girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried). After all, she notes, “people are living to be 35 these days,” so there’s no need to rush into anything.
Louise does seem pretty keen, though, to rush into the arms of Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), the pompous owner of the town’s moustachery, who can ply her with extravagances such as wrapped candy.
Despondent and ready to flee to San Francisco, Albert is distracted by the arrival of Anna (Charlize Theron), a gorgeous stranger who’s as quick with an insult as a gun. After a showdown at the fair, during which Albert challenges crack shot Foy to a gunfight, Anna teaches him to shoot as the two fall in love.
Unbeknownst to Albert, though, Anna is already married, very unhappily, to the despicable outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson). Upon hearing of her infidelity, Clinch rides into Old Stump to kill our hero. Although, as Albert acknowledges, “I’m not the hero. I’m the guy in the crowd making fun of the hero’s shirt.”
Given the words “Western comedy” and MacFarlane’s penchant for out-of-left-field jokes that rarely serve to advance his plots, you could be forgiven for expecting “A Million Ways” to be little more than “Blazing Saddles 2: Kerosene Boogaloo.”
“A Million Ways,” though, is not that movie.
Oh, sure, they both prominently feature anachronisms, musical numbers and farts. There’s just simply no way to be as revolutionary as “Blazing Saddles” was in its day. There’s a good chance, though, that “A Million Ways” could hold up better over time. (Let’s just say that if you haven’t seen the Mel Brooks comedy in a decade or three, you might be in for a surprise.)
Like “Blazing Saddles,” MacFarlane’s comedy also traffics in racial humor. But rather than relying on several dozen utterances of the N-word, “A Million Ways” cracks a joke about black guys liking big butts. And a shooting gallery at the fair that’s replaced its duck targets with images of runaway slaves is mostly there for Albert to remark that it seems a bit excessive.
Sarah Silverman and Giovanni Ribisi wring some easy, crude laughs out of their roles as Old Stump’s busiest prostitute and the naive boyfriend she’s forcing to wait until their honeymoon to sample her wares.
But for the most part, “A Million Ways” relies on observant and amusing ruminations on what life in the Old West really must have been like. There’s a running joke about how people never smiled in old-timey photos that’s particularly sharp.
Harris is reliably smarmy. Theron is as likable and relaxed as she’s ever been onscreen. And while never as raucous as its predecessor, the whole thing feels more accomplished than “Ted,” both of which MacFarlane co-wrote with Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild.
With its magnificent vistas and a gorgeous score by Joel McNeely, MacFarlane makes “A Million Ways” look and sound like a classic Western.
He’s clearly done his homework.
Unfortunately, though, the result is often more amusing than hilarious. There are plenty of laughs, to be sure, but almost all of them were employed early and often in the movie’s relentless commercials and trailers.
Earlier this month, in lamenting how the same studio, Universal, gave away almost all of the jokes of “Neighbors” ahead of time, I wrote that I couldn’t imagine there was a better gag anywhere in “A Million Ways” than the random, “Family Guy”-style, pop-culture cameo that was prominently featured in its advertising.
There may be a million ways to die in the West, but apparently there are only a dozen or so ways to really laugh at it.
— Contact Christopher Lawrence at firstname.lastname@example.org