Seth McFarlane is smarter than most people give him credit for. It's incredibly adept at adapting pop cultur into humor and he's smart enough to know that crossing the line is what makes his humor work. It's why his previous film, Ted, worked so well. It's also why A Million Days to Die in the West is such a disappointment. For a man who mocks pop culture so well he can barely pull of the most American of pop culture, the western.
A Million Ways to Die in the West is obviously a comedy western, but that's almost all that can be said for it. Albert (Seth McFarlane) is a "nice guy" living in the American west. When his girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried) breaks up with him he's determined to win her back from Foy (Neal Patrick Harris). The arrival of Anna (Charlize Theron) puts a few screws in that plan, however, as she agrees to train him for his shoot out with Foy, they start to fall for each other. The problem is Anna is married to Clinch (Liam Neeson), the baddest bad guy in the west.
There are two major issues with A Million Ways to Die in the West. The first is that its story is completely shoved to the side in favor of ramping up jokes. McFarlane wisely avoided this issue in the surprisingly touching Ted, but here the film revolves around the punch lines. That would be all well and good if the comedy didn't completely stop during the latter third of the film. The movie eventually becomes a more serious western, but thanks to the skit like nature of the first two thirds caring about the characters is pretty impossible and the tonal shift from immature humor to all out western is hard to swallow. It makes the film seem far longer than it needs to be.
The second issue is that the comedy just isn't that smart and rarely plays off its setting. What made the likes of Blazing Saddles work is that it played with its genre. A Million Ways instead inserts jokes that could work at any point in time. When it does decide to play with the western many of its jokes miss the audience. A rant delivered by McFarlane on how terrible the west actual is is clearly meant to mock the glorification of the era by westerns, but it's too smart for its own good and missed much of the audience. It's funny in an academic way, but not in a humor way.
Even more aggravating are the flashes of brilliance that come through at some moments. Sometimes this is the western comedy you'd expect from McFarlane. A line near the beginning about Parkinson had me laughing at the end of the film when thinking about it. Some of the less mature humor is solid slapstick and there's even a joke inserted about the soundtrack only having three songs that's hilarious once it hits you. Sadly this just points out all the missed opportunities the movie had to be better at want it wanted to be. The clear divide between McFarlane's mocking of the genre and his desire to cram in jokes about pooping is unfortunate for the film and never quite works as smartly as it should.
There's a movie in here that could have worked, especially since McFarlane and Theron seems to actually have some chemistry together, but it's lost in humor that doesn't always hit and an ending that drags. If only McFarlane had been able to better appropriate the western into his humor things could of worked out. Instead we get a bunch of sketches featuring people dressed as cowboys, and like any sketch comedy show some jokes work while others don't.
That Parkinson joke though. That was funny.