If there were a high-noon shootout in the Hollywood comedic corral between Mel Brooks’ 40-year-old Western spoof, “Blazing Saddles,” and the new kid in town, Seth MacFarlane’s “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” it’s not even a contest. Brooks’ classic would chase the upstart out of town with a backside full of lead.
Speaking of backsides, the two films do have one thing in common: flatulence jokes. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end.
That’s not to say there aren’t some very humorous segments in “A Million Ways to Die” (in a comedy that stretches to nearly two hours, there ought to be). There are also some inspired cameos. But, overall, it lacks the raw, anarchic spirit that made “Blazing Saddles” so ferociously funny. It substitutes that with a sense of love-story sweetness as well as MacFarlane’s “Family Guy”-style one-liners which, as anyone who saw his stint as host of the 2013 Oscars or his last film, the foul-mouthed teddy bear flick “Ted,” can attest, can be a hit-or-miss.
It’s the 19th century and MacFarlane is Albert, a luckless sheep farmer living with his parents in the dusty town of Old Stump in the Arizona Territory. His only friend is the equally hapless Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), a virgin dating the town prostitute, Ruth (Sarah Silverman), who won’t be intimate with Edward until he puts a ring on it.
Meanwhile, Albert’s girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), has left him for a local Lothario, Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), the man with the most upper-lip facial hair for miles who also runs the town’s moustachery.
Their lives are disrupted when, during a bar brawl, Albert happens to save the life of a beautiful but mysterious woman, Anna (Charlize Theron), who just moved to Old Stump.
Despite the fact that she’s an angel and he’s a nebbish, the two hit it off. But she fails to tell him one important fact – she’s married to the most feared outlaw in the West, a mean cuss who goes by the name of Clinch (Liam Neeson). He’s on his way to town and is not going to appreciate a varmint like Albert getting cozy with his woman.
Theron brings an enjoyable ease to her part, while Harris (who has the most memorable – and scatological – scene in the film), Ribisi and Silverman seem like they’re having a frontier’s worth of fun. But MacFarlane might have been better off casting someone else to play Albert. He never disappears into his character; he’s just Seth MacFarlane in a cowboy hat spouting lines that are more 21st-century Hollywood writers’ room than 19th-century Tombstone saloon. No doubt that’s part of the joke, but it wears thin after a while.
Plus, some of the jokes – like the runaway-slave shooting gallery at the county fair – induce more groans and winces than laughs. (Though, to be fair, viewers need to stay through to end of the movie for a cameo appearance that makes that routine work. Sort of.)
Visually, the film is ravishing – it was actually filmed in Santa Fe, N.M., and at Monument Valley in Utah – conjuring up John Ford-like, purple-mountains-majesty visions of the American West. MacFarlane definitely needs to thank his cinematographer, Michael Barrett.
Overall though, “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is just not very memorable. Neither offensive enough to be shocking nor funny enough to compensate for its weaknesses, it stands in a fallow middle ground, out in the open, just waiting to be picked off by the next Hollywood gunslinger with a few jokes in his saddlebag.