Navigating present day personas far into the past to create extreme fish-out-of-water scenarios isn’t an entirely new concept, but one still rife with comedic potential. In “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” director Seth MacFarlane infuses his potent brand of abrasive humor (and himself, in the lead role) into the wild, wild West with a mostly effective contrast between the harsh realities of the times and cynical interpretations on everything from the fashions to the vocations to, of course, the plethora of ways to meet untimely demises. The laughs are fashioned similarly to MacFarlane’s “Family Guy” TV show and fluctuate between ‘80s references, gross-out gags, slapstick, and the occasional brilliant jab at societal shortcomings. Though not every joke works, the rapid-fire pacing and the facetiously jarring 21st century conversations transplanted into the Old West offer an impressive quantity of laughs to sift through.
The year is 1882 and cowardly sheep farmer Albert Stark (Seth MacFarlane) couldn’t feel more out of place in his despondent Arizona lifestyle - save for one ray of hope, his loving girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried). But when Louise walks out on him, Albert is thrown into a deep depression, out of which even his best friends Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and Ruth (Sarah Silverman) can’t lift him. Matters worsen when his sweetheart begins dating dreadfully uppity moustachery manager Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). Ready to leave Arizona for good, Stark is halted by a chance encounter with fiery blonde Anna (Charlize Theron), a mysterious woman intent on helping Albert reclaim his self-esteem and win back his true love. But along with assisting in refining the awkward herder’s skills (in both romance and gun fighting), Anna’s dark past brings the most dangerous outlaw in the territory (Liam Neeson) barreling down upon the mild-mannered Stark.
A somewhat syncopated pattern of humor exists in this broad parody of all things Western. Instead of relying chiefly on the vaguer references, boundary-breaking cutaways, and general randomness of MacFarlane’s popular “Family Guy” show, this theatrical venture specifically alternates clever humor with the perceived universal appeal of crassness. Every time a spoof with substance or a plot-oriented joke occurs, it’s followed up with startlingly visual sheep urine, gas passing, irritable bowel clangoring, horse feces, or ejaculate. And when Albert comments on the woes of frontier life, Ruth chimes in with frank sexual proclamations.
In rare form, the villains actually remain as serious characters, nicely contrasting the antics of the dislocated hero. Neeson and even henchman Evan Jones are noteworthy for their refusal to acknowledge their opponents’ insincerity. But since Ribisi and Silverman are purely comic relief, along with numerous other supporting parts, it’s marginally disappointing that Theron’s persona regularly teeters between genuine and phony, dropping her authentic Western garb, outlaw predicaments, and confidence-boosting function to join in with anachronistic dialogue and pot cookie trips. After all, MacFarlane unwaveringly assumes the role of a “Mystery Science Theater 3000” commentator, transposed into a contradictory time period like Danny McBride in “Your Highness.”
Lacking the belly laughs of “Blazing Saddles” and the charm of “City Slickers,” this nevertheless amusing glimpse at the judgments and condemnations of an overprivileged, culturally aware, Buster Keaton-sensitive, futuristic observer isn’t without gags that stick. Gunfights, prostitution, short life expectancies, diseases, savage Indians, and unsound modern medicine are but a few of the countless manners in which to comedically perish in this barbaric setting. Challenging the easiness of death are several sequences of graphic violence that attempt to pluck giggles from overblown gruesomeness, which correlates to the mistaken impression that every uncomfortable insinuation must be concluded with obscene visuals. In the end, MacFarlane’s signature song-and-dance routines and nicely placed cameos win out over the arguable faults.
- The Massie Twins (GoneWithTheTwins.com)