When Seth MacFarlane decided to mash up a spaghetti western with an off-color comedy, he must’ve known the comparisons to “Blazing Saddles” would follow, as surely as his runaway animated smash “Family Guy” will forever be held up against “The Simpsons.” MacFarlane, like Mel Brooks, takes a strong hand in his movies — in “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” he directs, produces, writes and stars. Unlike Brooks, though, MacFarlane doesn’t know when to take a light touch.
“Million Ways” generates its share of laughs, through the occasionally well-crafted gag. Between those gems you’ll find lazy writing, indifferent editing, rote cinematography — heck, there ain’t even much of a plot. The score is big and fun and Western. Charlize Theron casually steals her every scene, as an ingénue carved from saddle leather. If that’s enough to warrant your $11.50, by all means, go west.
MacFarlane stars as Albert, a sheep farmer who sucks at sheep farming, which happens to be the thing he’s best at. He doesn’t belong in 1880s Arizona frontier any more than a dog belongs at a piano, and he knows it. He manages to talk himself out of getting plugged in a gun duel, then gets promptly dumped for general lack of manly creds by his girlfriend, the real-live Disney princess Amanda Seyfried. Albert whines to his best friend Giovanni Ribisi — himself beset by woman troubles, as a chaste Christian whose betrothed is a prolific prostitute played by Sarah Silverman — and mopes until he comes across Theron. She’s ostensibly an outlaw by way of a reluctant marriage to the baddest dude in the territory, Liam Neeson, and she’s in town to scope out a heist.
She and Albert bond over what a dump the West is, and she takes him on as a charity case as he tries to win back his hot ex, who in prompt fashion has taken up with the local dandy, Neil Patrick Harris, a moustachery owner and facile marksman. Albert proposes a duel; his mustachioed rival accepts. He is going to die.
Now, in a MacFarlane production, as any “Family Guy” fan could admit, the story as such is really just an excuse to hang nonsensical and/or profane jokes on the screen. In “Million Ways,” most of those riffs revolve around the multifold dangers and indignities of living in the frontier. Albert goes on versions of this tirade more than once, and sure enough, the west delivers. People die: in a freak ice-dropping accident; in a freak camera-exploding accident; getting shot for no reason (much like modern Arizona!); breaking deadly wind; getting gored by a rampaging bull; etc. All of this is not in itself bad comedic fodder, a canvas of gallows humor.
Yet the writing sags and MacFarlane’s delivery comes off as so an extended spitball session. You can see him ad-libbing versions of these lines at a pitch meeting over brunch somewhere, and, satisfied his riffing is worth the bazillion dollars he scrounged for this farce, resting on his laurels.
Much of the script works this way, treading the line between off-the-cuff and downright unrehearsed. The dialogue serves the tone — it’s jangly, abrupt, reflexively profane. It reminds us that Albert, who speaks and thinks like someone from 2014, doesn’t belong on the frontier of 130 years ago. MacFarlane, too, seems like he’d rather be somewhere else. A good director makes it look effortless. MacFarlane just seems not to have worked all that hard.