In the loopy cowboy farce “A Million Ways to Die in the West” the jokes misfire, ricochet and hit the bull’s-eye about equally. Borrowing its setting and premise from “Blazing Saddles,” it gives us a sarcastic, modern-minded hipster in an 1880s Western town.
Albert, a fast-talking, cowardly descendant of Bob Hope and Woody Allen played by director/producer/co-writer Seth MacFarlane, is an underdog with an attitude. He hates Arizona, a place where boredom is everywhere and death is just around the corner. If the outlaws, rattlesnakes or “the latest offering of the frontier disease-of-the-month club” don’t get you, he fumes, the doctors will: Medical science is likely to treat a headache with a mule kicking.
The film gives its tomfoolery a classic frame, with grandiose Monument Valley cinematography and a sweeping score that recalls the symphonic western compositions of Elmer Bernstein and Dmitri Tiomkin. There’s also a story, a rarity in this era of arbitrary, chaos-driven comedies.
Albert, a knock-kneed yellow-belly, has to man up and confront the Arizona territory’s deadliest gunslinger (Liam Neeson). There’s even a full-blown subplot, a romantic rivalry involving Albert, his ex (Amanda Seyfried), her new beau (Neil Patrick Harris) and Albert’s new gunslinger gal pal (Charlize Theron), that occasionally becomes the main plot. The competent, funny and gorgeous Theron’s attraction to the underachieving MacFarlane (pointedly one of the only men in town without facial hair) even gets a half-convincing explanation.
It’s good to see serious actors like Neeson and Theron letting their hair down, and they ably carry every scene they’re in. Much of the film rests on MacFarlane’s shoulders, and he has toned down the snide, obnoxious demeanor that spoiled his turn as the 2013 Oscars host.
Here he’s poised, charming and handsome — quite affable. He’s at the center of most of the film’s brazen, immature gags but avoids the taint of smugness by playing a craven underdog. The burden of dislikability falls to the black-hatted Neeson and Harris, a smarmy dandy who runs the town’s mustache emporium. His pretentious boutique selling overpriced pomades and elixirs would be right at home in any upscale 21st-century mall.
The film plays like a raunchy, affectionate parody of the western films that made an impression on MacFarlane when he was a kid. There’s a big, well-staged dance extravaganza, an epic barroom brawl, and a fairly thrilling horses-and-train chase scene amid all the incongruous humor. True to the film’s title, any number of minor characters are carried off by absurd accidents. The county fair is a festival of death (watch out for the flash powder at the photo booth!) and in the saloon we witness what I think is cinema’s first fatality by fart.
There are wildly funny bits here, including a 1980s pop-culture reference that is as uproarious as it is unexpected. A film like this would be incomplete without an excrement gag, and the delightfully hammy Harris milks this one to hysterical extremes. And most of the film’s anachronistic jokes succeed. There are funny extended riffs on the poker-faced poses of folks in old-time pictures and a good gag about “splitting the country 50-50” with ungrateful American Indians. The racial, religious and sexual jokes here spoof ugly, retrograde attitudes rather than endorsing them.
The film’s biggest failing is its pacing. It carries a good deal of excess weight, clocking in at an arduous two hours. Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman have a generous amount of screen time but only a single overstretched joke as the town’s virginal cobbler and his prostitute fiancé. Albert’s encounter with Cochise (Wes Studi, wisely playing it straight) leads to an overblown peyote dream sequence that goes nowhere. Universal has done the film no favors by revealing many of the choicest jokes in their advertising trailers. Expect a fistful of laughs, nothing more.