I laughed exactly twice during A Million Ways to Die in the West.
Once was in the middle, once was near the end. It was only after the fact I learned that one of those laughs, a "Hey, didn't see that coming!" moment, has actually been spoiled by Universal via the film's marketing materials. I'll avoid doing the same thing here, but after you factor that one out, it leaves us with one genuine laugh in just under two hours. That's not a great ratio for a comedy (it's also not a great runtime for a comedy, but I digress). It's an even bigger problem when you realize this is director Seth MacFarlane's follow-up to the top grossing R-rated comedy of all time.
While MacFarlane provided his trademark dulcet tones to the title character of 2012's Ted, he mostly confined his focus behind the camera, both as helmer and, along with Alec Sulkin, co-writer. Of course, when your directorial debut mints the kind of money Ted did for Universal, it opens up a whole lot of wiggle room to follow your muse the next time around. And for his sophomore effort, MacFarlane's muse (again working with Sulkin, as well Wellesley Wild) as instructed him to ride back to the bygone days of yesteryear...and to saddle up as his own star.
Now, as Mel Brooks definitively demonstrated with Blazing Saddles, there's nothing wrong with attempting a comedy western. And as Brooks has also shown repeatedly, there's absolutely nothing wrong with casting yourself in your own comedy. Unfortunately, MacFarlane lacks Brooks' finesse with weaving blistering social commentary in with the various sight gags and word play, leaving us instead with a hodgepodge of half-formed comic riffs, anachronistic references, and fart noises. In other words, it's about par with an average episode of post-cancellation Family Guy.
The film stars MacFarlane as sheep farmer Albert Stark, a loveable-but-hapless loser who's barely competent at maintaining his farm (one sheep has inexplicably ended up on his roof), much less a relationship with ladylove Louise (Amanda Seyfried). When Stark is unceremoniously dumped by Louise for his mustachioed nemesis Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), he forms a friendship with the tough and feisty Anna (Charlize Theron), a newbie in town who tries to help him woo her back, but ends up gradually falling for him. Of course, unbeknownst to Albert, Anna happens also to be married to Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), the most feared gunman in the west.
Could all this be fussing and fighting be leading up, perchance, to a trademark western-style standoff between Clinch and Our Man Albert? Hmm, could be. Also providing background color in the cast are Albert's devout Christian friends Edward (Giovanni Ribis) and Ruth (Sarah Silverman), the latter of whom is also a prostitute. Now, with a top-flight cast like that, it's clear MacFarlane had a lot of resources to draw from, and A Million Ways to Die certainly doesn't lack for ambition. We get plenty of sweeping, panoramic vistas straight out of John Ford, not to mention a suitably bombastic music score from Joel McNeely that neatly evokes the era of Elmer Bernstein and Max Steiner.
No, the problem with the film is that Seth MacFarlane (the director) has been tasked with making a leading man out of Seth MacFarlane (the actor). And while he's a likable enough performer, we can never quite get past the inherent artifice that his mere presence conveys, as if he's an ironic observer of the film's events rather than a participant in them. Far too often things devolve into MacFarlane-as-Albert performing standup-style riffs on the various peculiarities of life in the old west, with other characters excitedly laughing and chuckling along as if he's in some old-timey comedy club.
Now, I'm far from a reflexive MacFarlane-hater (heck, I even defended his polarizing Oscar hosting gig), and the material in many of those riffs is actually pretty good, but he never quite threads the needle to make that material into more than just something that might make you crack half a smile, or exhale a bemused chuckle, before you forget all about it (the one exception to this is a square dance showdown between McFarlane and Harris to "The Mustache Song," which I assure you will take up permanent residence in your cranium the instant you hear it -- be forewarned).
Yes, it's gross. Yes, it's tasteless. But none of that is a problem if you're making some kind of bold social observation, blazing some new trail, or just plain being funny. Instead, A Million Ways to Die in the West feels like lukewarm leftovers from comedies that got there first and did it better, like a bit with Silverman's Ruth that calls to mind the hair gel scene in There's Something About Mary, or, in a callback to the infamous beans-and-farting scene in Blazing Saddles, an extended gag with a character repeatedly (and noisily) evacuating himself in peoples' hats that makes you feel like you're witnessing the exact moment the fart joke reached its evolutionary end. D