The main titles and Joel McNeely’s opening theme to “A Million Ways to Die in the West” quickly bring to mind memories of Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles,” still one of the funniest comedies ever made. Seth McFarlane, who wrote, produced and directed this western comedy, looks to make this a “Blazing Saddles” for a new generation, and that he comes up a little short of that goal is no surprise. Brooks’ classic is one of those comedies that are just impossible to top in terms of laughs, but it should be said that McFarlane does give it a good try. What results is a hit and miss comedy with a typical western story, but the stuff that does hit will have you laughing hard.
In addition to wearing a number of different hats on this production, which reminded me of when Robin Williams talked about how a writer/producer/director is one of the few people who can “blow smoke up their own ass,” McFarlane also stars as Albert Stark, a man many would call the wimp of the old west. He ends up buying his way out of a gunfight, and as a result his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him for successful mustache expert Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). As a result, he ends up in a John Cusack “Better Off Dead” depressed state as his life seems to lack all meaning without her. But then Anna (Charlize Theron) arrives in town and takes a liking to him after he challenges Foy to a gun duel. Anna offers to help him with his aim with a gun, and in the process they fall for one another. The one problem is that Albert has yet to realize that Anna is the wife to Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), one of the nastiest outlaws in the west, and Clinch is not going to be happy with what Albert has been up to with Anna.
“A Million Ways to Die in the West” marks McFarlane’s debut as a leading actor, and my thoughts on his performance are mixed. McFarlane is definitely quite the performer and can keep an audience entertained even while he’s telling the most off-color jokes imaginable, but at the same time I couldn’t help but think that he was playing himself. He has a lot of strong moments where he derides the old west to where we as an audience wonder if we ever had any business getting nostalgic about it. But at the same time we know it’s the McFarlane we all know and love (or hate) to where we get taken out of the movie at times. While he does provide us with a number of laughs, I felt that this movie might have benefitted from another actor in the role; one who wasn’t as in on the joke like McFarlane was here.
Still, he has assembled quite the cast here with actors like Liam Neeson, Charlize Theron and Neil Patrick Harris who never ever disappoints in anything he does. Theron, one of the few in Hollywood who defended McFarlane’s job hosting the Oscars, is especially fun to watch here as Anna. Her performance feels like a fresh take on the tough woman in the old west, and we all know that Theron can play the tough one like a pro. She also has good chemistry with McFarlane and at times manages to outdo him in terms of off-color jokes.
It’s also cool to see Neeson in a movie like this as we often see him as the serious dude in dramas or action flicks. Neeson looks like he’s having loads of fun poking at that image we have of him these days, and we share in that fun as he goes around town feeling like he doesn’t have to prove to anyone how nasty a gunslinger he can be.
I also have to say that Sarah Silverman was perfectly cast as Ruth, a prostitute who, like her boyfriend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), is a Christian. Of course, this doesn’t stop Ruth from having sex with up to ten men a day. Only Silverman could make a character as hypocritical as this one so endearing despite her irrepressible raunchiness.
Yes, there is quite a bit of scatological humor and fart jokes throughout “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” but if “Blazing Saddles” taught us anything, it’s that gas was a big thing with cowboys and the occasional cowgirl back in the old days. For what it’s worth, McFarlane does get some great comic timing out of Harris in one scene where he is forced to relieve himself in a very inconvenient way. Also, there are a number of cameos littered throughout the movie that are alone worth the price of admission. Be sure to stay through the end credits for a cameo where an actor utters an infamous line of dialogue from “Blazing Saddles.”
One other thing worth pointing out about “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is the beautiful cinematography by Michael Barrett. Not that I expected it to be bad or anything, but Barrett captures the amazing vistas of the old west that includes sweeping helicopter shots of New Mexico that makes me want to visit there someday. Seriously, this is a truly beautiful movie to look at regardless of the feces on display.
“A Million Ways to Die in the West” doesn’t quite reach the heights that “Ted” did as that movie had a lot more heart and the story was nowhere as scattershot as it is in this one. I also don’t think that people will be putting it on the same level with “Blazing Saddles” or for that matter “City Slickers” as those two movies are hard to top in terms of laughs. But for what it was, I enjoyed it and laughed at it a lot. Any movie that makes me laugh more than it doesn’t is worth giving a good review to, and this is one of them.
At the very least, I have to thank this movie for teaching me the Indian word for “nice.”