A Million Ways to Die in the West, distributed by Universal Pictures, 116 minutes, Rated R, 2014
This Western spoof does not show us a million ways to die on the 19th-century frontier, but it shows us enough—gunfire, poison, disease, stampeding bulls, falling blocks of ice, to name a few. The film is essentially two hours of one man, actor/writer/director Seth MacFarlane, telling the same expletive-filled joke about how it stank to live in the Wild West. His one-joke pony achieves varying amounts of scatological success, ranging from crude to cringe-worthy crude—funny enough to sustain a Saturday Night Live skit or maybe even a half-hour of MacFarlane’s long-running animated program Family Guy, but not a two-hour feature film. Rather than a well-tuned comedian, MacFarlane comes across as a drunken uncle at a family reunion who won’t stop telling his one funny story to each relative—with the story becoming dirtier, more bombastic and less funny with each telling. Only the drunken uncle passing out—or, in this case, the closing credits—can bring any relief.
With Family Guy MacFarlane disguises a paper-thin, clichéd sitcom within a cartoon turnstile of pop culture references, fart jokes and bloody violence. A Million Ways to Die disguises a bland romantic comedy within—wouldn’t you know it—a turnstile of pop culture references, fart jokes and bloody violence. But in the film the laughs come slower, and there’s no cartoon, though MacFarlane, with his smug, clean-shaven boyish face, seems like a cartoon figure, something of a dark-haired Tintin. He plays Albert Stark, a cowardly pacifist who is much smarter than everyone around him yet is a terrible sheep farmer.
MacFarlane seems to have scraped the plot from the bottom of a garbage bin filled with bad Valentine’s Day movies. Albert’s girlfriend with a brick wall of a personality, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), breaks up with him, and he desperately tries to get her back with the help of another girl, the beautiful and funny Anna (Charlize Theron). Albert comes to the stunning conclusion—about 90 minutes after the audience does—that the second girl is better in every way, shape and form than the first. He quarrels over these women with two men—a slickster with a twirly mustache (Neil Patrick Harris) and a violent outlaw (Liam Neeson). A side plot involves his innocent best friend (Giovanni Ribisi) dating a prostitute (Sarah Silverman) who refuses to have sex with him until they get married.
The humor is in the anachronisms. MacFarlane brings a 21st-century cultural awareness to his characters when they discuss life, relationships and especially cunnilingus. (Yes, MacFarlane goes places even Mel Brooks did not venture in his vastly superior 1974 Western spoof Blazing Saddles.) Trouble is the anachronisms permeate the film so thoroughly that one never really gets the sense this is actually a Western. Other than Neeson, what we see are modern-day actors and comedians playing dress up. Jokewise, it’s what you’d expect from MacFarlane—characters make references to Mark Twain and Stephen Foster, eat pot cookies while watching the sunset at Monument Valley and postpone gunfights to poop into not one but two hats. One thing is certain: No one in the West or East will die laughing.