Seth MacFarlane (next to Charlize Theron) gets a bird in the face in "A Million Ways to Die in the West." Credit: Lorey Sebastian
'A Million Ways to Die in the West' Director: Seth MacFarlane Stars: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron Rating: R 3 (out of 5) Globes
For anyone to make a Western — even a spoof of same — in this day and age is likeable insanity. The genre, annoyingly, is dead, gunned down by “The Lone Ranger” — or rather, those that panned it or didn’t see it (or both). Technically speaking, Seth MacFarlane’s “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is pure hubris, the result of him cashing in his “Ted” bucks to make something so against what’s chic that it has a certain dignity. It would never exist if MacFarlane hadn’t made a massive hit, and for someone who tends to give the masses exactly what they want, that gives it some cred.
That MacFarlane's latest also forces him to work without a few of his safety nets helps too. For one thing, he acts, not merely voices, and even plays lead. He’s Albert, a sheep farmer we’re informed by the grizzled-sounding narrator was born in the wrong time and place. The right time would be one of the American coasts in the modern day, meaning he’s a disgruntled smartass who likes to relentlessly complain about the silliness of gunfights, bar fights and living in the Old West in the first place, where one can be randomly picked off by all manner of cartoonishly gruesome deaths.
There’s a loose plot where he trains for a gunfight with the dandy (Neil Patrick Harris) who absconded with his beloved (Amanda Seyfried), with the help of a hotcha gunslinger (Charlize Theron). But it’s a series of sketches and gags. These are about the West but not Westerns, per se. In fact, it’s not clear if MacFarlane has ever even seen a Western. He seems to have absorbed the genre by osmosis, allowing him to riff on the basics: dirty bars, dirty prostitutes, dapper gentlemen with florid moustachery, dangerous/oppressed Injuns. In fact, the only Western he seems to have seen is “Back to the Future III,” the only film that gets a direct homage at all.
Sarah Silverman plays an Old West prostitute engaged to a nice man (Giovanni Ribisi) in "A Million Ways to Die in the West." Credit: Universal Pictures
For someone who loves — annoyingly relies on, really — making endless references to things he watched as a kid, it’s strange to see MacFarlane riff on Westerns without specifically riffing on Westerns. Then again, this frees him up to indulge in what is his actual gift: unfettered loopiness. He approaches the Western not as a cinephile, but as someone who sat down and really thought about jokes to make about living in a not yet completely settled locale where danger comes from all sides. (A running gag about how no one smiles in old-timey pictures is pretty delightful.)
This is funnier than a Western spoof, or at least more creative. In truth, it’s neither as silly or as ballsy as “Blazing Saddles,” and even for a few stretches it feels like an actual Western rather than a pastiche. (No one seems to have told Theron or Liam Neeson, as a fearsome outlaw, that this was a comedy — or at least no one has ever been this poker-faced.) As an actor, MacFarlane’s not bad either — a winning shlub with decent screen presence. In fact, like the Neeson business, he seems to have taken the zero-to-hero a bit too seriously. It’s not clear why MacFarlane made “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” although one clear reason is so he can make out with hot actresses.