Even with a few funny moments, writer/director Seth MacFarlane’s latest comedy “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is a bumbling retelling of old jokes that hit far too many of the same notes to actually work. What starts as a promising comedic concept spins into familiar territory and overstays its welcome, hanging a talented cast out to dry as MacFarlane reaches for many of the same gags Mel Brooks already made more than 30 years ago. “A Million Ways to Die in the West” may not be a complete setback for MacFarlane, though, as he once again shows just enough clever writing and creative comedy to point out that he’s capable of much more than slapstick and poop jokes.
The concept here is pretty simple: compared with today, the Old West is a shockingly dangerous place to try to live. Though John Wayne and Clint Eastwood romanticized the western frontier life and made it seem like it was all fun and games, reality was quite a bit different. Sure, movies may have already taught us not to mess with the town’s gunslinger, but there are plenty of other ways to go down at a time that you least expect it, and even a trip to the fair has a surprisingly high chance of something going terribly wrong. For the modern man used to prepackaged food, countless medical professionals and air conditioning, the Old West would probably seem like one big psychotic joke.
And so it is for MacFarlane, who writes, directs and stars as a cowardly farmer named Albert who doesn’t really seem to fit in 1880s Arizona. Though the scenery is beautiful and things could be worse, Albert is about as rough and rugged as Paris Hilton on holiday, making him somewhat of a target to be the next person to get bumped off unexpectedly. It also doesn’t help that his old flame Louise (Amanda Seyfried) loses interest when he backs down from a duel and all hope seems to be lost.
After MacFarlane establishes that people die in horrific ways all the time, and then reestablishes it just in case we didn’t already get the point, Albert’s life changes dramatically with the appearance of enigmatic bombshell Anna (Charlize Theron). But even though Anna seems like the perfect match for Albert, gals like her don’t tend to come without complications in movies like this. Sure enough, Anna happens to be the estranged wife of a frightening gunslinger (Liam Neeson), leaving Albert in a bit of a rough spot considering his aversion to gun fighting.
While the plot builds in a very predictable fashion for anyone who has even heard of a western, MacFarlane sets up the rest of the story with a series of side characters that are all unapologetically over-the-top. The most promising involves the strange relationship of a shy virgin (Giovanni Ribisi) and a seasoned prostitute (Sarah Silverman), allowing MacFarlane to delve into a series of gags about sex in the Old West. But even here, we end up with the same uninspired crude humor that often plagues MacFarlane’s brand of comedy. What could be funnier than anal sex jokes and pubic hair gone wild? For MacFarlane, well, apparently not a whole lot.
The other disappointment is with Neil Patrick Harris’ quirky local business owner, a mustached sleazebag who eyes his opportunity to steal away MacFarlane’s former girlfriend. Harris has an innate ability to be terrifically funny while being a scoundrel, but here his big moments are reduced to diarrhea gags and slapstick, leaving an entire side plot struggling to land a single joke. Add in some misfires in the main plot involving MacFarlane and Theron and you end up with a steady stream of similar jokes that never venture too far from the lowest of the low brow, making it very difficult to care in any way about how it all plays out. Considering the observant cultural satire that helped make MacFarlane’s last effort “Ted” more than just a combination of old jokes, it’s hard to view “A Million Ways to Die in the West” as anything but a disappointment.
The main criticism of MacFarlane, of course, has long been that his love of the obvious gag undercuts his true talent, and here we see more of the same. Like some of the worst episodes from MacFarlane’s popular series “Family Guy,” “A Million Ways to Die in the West” stumbles upon some funny dialog and humorous situations then taints the entire experience by routinely going about as far over-the-top as imaginable. While Mel Brooks gave us a hilariously shocking and foul-mouthed Old West in his comedy classic “Blazing Saddles,” here we end up with an amped up romp that is neither original nor inspired, wasting a talented cast and giving MacFarlane plenty of room for improvement.