It's nearly impossible not to mention Mel Brooks' classic comedy, Blazing Saddles, in any discussion of Seth MacFarlane's A Million Ways to Die in the West. MacFarlane was clearly inspired by the film, one of the rare comedy-westerns that brilliantly used modern sensibilities (modern for 1974, anyway) to reflect on the stupidity of the Old West cowboy mentality. And that's the approach MacFarlane is taking, combining sophomoric gags with his usual brand of wit to make for a funny but uneven jaunt into tumbleweed territory.
MacFarlane is like a big league slugger batting .250 but with 50 home runs. When he connects it hits hard, and A Million Ways to Die in the West peppers you with enough jokes that some are bound to be worth a big laugh. Unlike his smash hit, Ted, MacFarlane steps in front of the camera and makes for a serviceable if unspectacular leading man. He plays Albert, a meek know-it-all sheep farmer wildly out of place in the Wild West of 1882. Albert is like a man out of time, speaking in modern cultural references and recognizing the absurdity of the time period of which he lives.
"The American West is a terrible place in time. Everything that’s not you, wants to kill you. Angry drunk people, hungry animals, outlaws… the f**king doctor!"
And he's right. People die in ridiculous, and often hilarious fashion in the Old West (a fart can kill you!), so the film more than lives up to the title. But Albert's forward-thinking and anti-violence stance make him a wimp in those days, and after he backs down from a gunfight his shallow girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) up and ditches him for a the mustachioed Foy, played by Neil Patrick Harris. Albert doesn't know how to deal with the loss, turning to his best friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and his prostitute girlfriend Ruth (Sarah Silverman) for answers, but they've got their own issues. MacFarlane gets great mileage (and takes a few swipes at Christians) out of Ruth's willingness to have sex with men for money while holding out on Edward until marriage.
An already dangerous town gets more lethal with the arrival of Anna (Charlize Theron), the gunslinger wife of notorious outlaw, Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson). While Clinch is off hiding out until things calm down, Anna is stuck in town and quickly befriends Albert who saves her from a ridiculously over-the-top barroom brawl. She agrees to pretend to be his new girlfriend in an effort to make Louise jealous, but when Albert mistakenly challenges Foy to a duel, she has to save his bacon by teaching him how to fight. Cue the perfect opportunity for them to fall in love, done through hurried montage of Albert and Anna laughing over their mutual hatred for the Old West.
It's charming enough, and Theron proves to be the real comedic heavyweight as the tough-as-nails Anna, knocking down preconceived notions of a female's place in that society. MacFarlane dabbles in exploring deeper themes but more often than not gives way to an endless stream of fart and poop jokes, profanity, and labored racial humor. Can't forget the racial humor, as ill-fitting and somewhat desperate as it seems to be in this case. MacFarlane and co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild run into problems when balancing the need for story with their desire for constantly offensive jokes. To fill in the gaps MacFarlane dials up some of his celebrity pals for cameos that reference other famous Westerns in very clever fashion. Those are really smartly done, and they remind you how much funnier MacFarlane is when he's being intelligent and goofy rather than just appealing to the lowest common denominator.
Basically, A Million Ways to Die in the West is exactly what fans of Ted and Family Guy would expect from MacFarlane, and if that puts a bur in your saddle then this isn't the film for you.