This summer is full to overflowing with superheroes and sequels, but there is a woeful lack of raunchy, R-rated comedies. “Neighbors” was great, and “22 Jump Street” looks like it should be a good time—even though it, too, is another sequel—but aside from that, the only other option is Seth MacFarlane’s western “A Million Ways to Die in the West.” His follow up to “Ted,” which surprised a lot of people and may have elevated expectations unrealistically, the “Family Guy” creator’s latest is a mixed bag, maybe a return to reality.
“A Million Ways” starts out strong. MacFarlane, who not only directs, but co-wrote and stars, reproduces the aesthetics of those classic John Ford, Monument Valley westerns. There are wide, sweeping shots of the gorgeous landscapes, a dirty frontier town called Old Stump, and they even shoot day-for-night in some situations. Given the style of the credits and the charging score that plays over the top, it sets the mood and tone of the genre perfectly. The exterior look and feel of the film is all that ever does this, however, because nothing else is even remotely period appropriate. The actors deliver their lines exactly like they would in a modern setting. They happen to be dressed like cowboys, but these could be conversations you overhear at any bar.
The first act is even a great deal of fun. Albert Stark (MacFarlane) is not meant to be here, in this time and place. He’s a sheep farmer, and not a good one, and to top it off, he is an incredible physical coward. When a bar fight breaks out, which happens at the drop of a hat, he and his best friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) pretend to slap at each other in the corner so as not to get pulled into the fracas. The first portion of the film is basically Albert on an extended, wiseass rant about how terrible the west is, and this is where the movie is the funniest. The equally meek Edward is engaged to a prostitute named Ruth (Sarah Silverman), which gives Silverman the license to be a foul-mouthed as she wants to be.
Problems arise because the film never progresses beyond that. It has one trick, and is incapable of doing anything else. You start out laughing, and as the movie goes on, as you hear the same joke over and over again, eventually you realize you’re not laughing as much as you were. Half an hour in, you get the point, anything in the west can kill you, even your own farts, but MacFarlane hammers that throughout the entire movie. A convoluted plot boils down to your typical romantic comedy structure. Albert’s longtime girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him. He befriends Anna (Charlize Theron), who tries to help him get Louise back by showing him his true value. Instead of winning back the hand of his beloved, they wind up falling in love. The only minor derivation is that Anna happens to be married to Clinch Leatherwood (a totally unused Liam Neeson), the baddest outlaw in the territory.
While “Ted” is raunchy and profane, it was also a sweet story of love, friendship, and growing up. Even if a hooker does crap on the floor, it still has a lot of heart. “A Million Ways” doesn’t have any of that charm going for it. At nearly two hours, this is overlong and the comedy is more in line with the repetitive nature of a “Family Guy” episode, which isn’t near enough to carry an entire movie. There’s no real connection, you don’t care about anyone, and there are long stretches where the film forgets that it is a comedy. You go for entire scenes where there are no jokes and it tries to be an actual western. This is one of those comedies where they keep in every last bit, and though it may provide a momentary laugh, it is to the detriment of the overall movie. You could cut 30 minutes without missing a beat.
This is obviously MacFarlane’s attempt to make his “Blazing Saddles,” but instead it is a pale imitation. “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is getting savaged by critics all over the place. It isn’t great, but at the same time, it doesn’t deserve such a vicious drubbing. A definite step down from “Ted,” this should still totally satisfy MacFarlane’s core fan base. You get the impression that his last outing was the anomaly, and that this is a return to form. Surface laughs will only carry you so far, and there has to be something more substantial in a movie this long, but there isn’t anything. You can watch “A Million Ways to Die in the West” and be amused enough, but this isn’t a movie that is going to stick around in the public consciousness.