Seth MacFarlane’s “A Million Ways to Die in the West” lopes along, parceling out gags over its two-hour run time and giving the film a welcome, unusually relaxed air for a raunchy comedy.
But fewer jokes means more pressure on each one, and the humor in “Million Ways” is hit and miss. So one’s mind drifts to that long run time and to the attention MacFarlane, who directs as well as co-writes and stars, clearly paid to shooting mesas in the prettiest light while on location in New Mexico.
He probably should have focused instead on honing gags and tightening story. Though “Million Ways” offers big stars, clever moments and an appealing lead performance by MacFarlane, it did not merit the sweeping “Giant” treatment.
MacFarlane plays Albert, a sheep farmer who at film’s start bows out of a duel regarding his sheep grazing on another man’s land. The ruffians in the 1882 Arizona outpost where Albert resides view him as lily-livered. He views himself as reasonable, as does the audience.
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That’s because MacFarlane has made Albert an omniscient narrator as well as a sheep rancher. Albert comments on the Old West as if from the future, detailing its dangers – gunslingers, wild animals, disease – to anyone who will listen while also living with them daily. Of course duels seem ridiculous from a 2014 perspective.
MacFarlane’s transition from voicing animated characters (on “Family Guy” and in “Ted,” his 2012 big-screen directing debut) to showing his face on screen is a smooth one. He de-smarms considerably from his 2013 Oscar hosting gig, adding hints of real sincerity to Albert, who is weary of the Old West’s constant hardships but devoted to his Old West girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried, attempting snooty, achieving colorless).
The girlfriend adds to the West’s cruelties by dumping Albert because of the lily-liver thing. Bummed, Albert hangs out at home with his frontier-wizened parents (Christopher Hagen is a tough-love delight as the father), sleeping away the day and neglecting his sheep, which grow so woolly they cannot see and run into buildings.
MacFarlane gives Albert enough of a nice-guy, everyman quality that we immediately accept this character as our guide. We even accept that a beautiful newcomer to town, Anna (Charlize Theron, wearing Barbara Stanwyck’s clothes from “The Big Valley” and showing a flair for comedy), would take a shine to him.
Considering that Anna’s husband, played by Liam Neeson with the same seriousness he brings to action dramas about human trafficking, is the West’s meanest villain, and that every other man in town looks unbathed times 20, Albert is a catch.
The first third of the film generates much audience goodwill, because of how MacFarlane sets things up, and residually, from the funny “Ted.” Though it’s always clear MacFarlane is stretching scenes too long, one can relax into this deliberate pace because one anticipates a laugh around the next bend.
It turns out to be every other bend.
The jokes almost always land when MacFarlane pokes absurdist fun at romantic notions of the Old West. Particularly good is a story line involving Albert’s romantic rival (a haughty, fun Neil Patrick Harris), owner of the “mustachery,” a shop specializing in expensive tonics for curlicued facial hair.
Citizens with facial hair spend most of their income at the mustachery. And hardly anyone is rich enough to ever have seen a real dollar bill, leading to a delightful bit in which the townspeople gape at the sight of one.
Less successful are scenes highlighting the Old West’s brutal and inherently scatological natures. A starkly violent, bloody scene falls flat less due to its content than to MacFarlane overworking it until it seems too staged.
The Old West apparently offered too many outhouses and too much horse manure for MacFarlane to resist over-mining that particular vein. “Million Ways” makes the flatulence jokes of “Blazing Saddles” seem refined by comparison.
MacFarlane, who infamously sang at the Oscars about seeing esteemed actresses’ bare breasts on screen, again shows an infantile streak regarding female anatomy in “Million Ways.” These are issues he should work out with a therapist, not in front of millions of viewers.
But the moment in question is brief, and other ribald scenes are funny. Most involve Albert’s shy friend (Giovanni Ribisi, weird as ever but more mildly here) and the friend’s prostitute girlfriend (Sarah Silverman). The girlfriend denies her boyfriend sex because they are “Christian” as she commits unspeakable acts with clients and then speaks about them.
As she has for years in her standup act, Silverman delivers filthy lines in the sweetest, most benign-sounding manner. Somehow this never gets old.