With Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Amanda Seyfried, Neil Patrick Harris. Directed by Seth MacFarlane. Written by Seth MacFarlane & Alec Sulkin & Wellesley Wild. Rated R for strong crude and sexual content, language throughout, some violence and drug material. 116 minutes.
Midway through A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST, there’s the sort of non-sequitur pop culture reference that Seth MacFarlane is known for on his animated series “Family Guy.” It’s as funny as it is unexpected. Enjoy it. It’s the only good laugh in the entire film.
It’s been forty years since Mel Brooks sent up the western in “Blazing Saddles,” and times sure have changed. For one thing, what was the last new western you recall enjoying? You probably have to think about it assuming you’ve seen any westerns at all, and that’s because picking on the western in 2014 is very much like beating a dead horse. It’s tough to lampoon the clichés of a genre when most people don’t know the originals.
The storyline involves Albert (MacFarlane), a cowardly sheep rancher on the frontier, who is dumped by his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried). He’s heartbroken and she’s taken up with Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), who runs the town’s “moustache emporium.” Meanwhile the ruthless gunfighter Clinch (Liam Neeson) is planning on pulling off a robbery in the town and his abused wife Anna (Charlize Theron) is part of the advance team scouting out the situation. When Albert rescues Anna from injury during a barroom brawl they become friends and she decides to help him win Louise back. You can probably already diagram the plot complications from here.
The film’s problems are many starting with the fact that it’s not funny. MacFarlane’s humor ranges from witty to crude to infantile, and here he’s channeling the inner child who has just been toilet trained. There’s so much bodily waste on screen that the film becomes the cinematic equivalent of a cesspool. When Foy is slipped a laxative without his knowledge (a plot point almost always a sign of desperation as with the recent “The Other Woman”), it’s not enough to play out a scene of him relieving his bowels into the hats of bystanders. McFarlane insists we look at the results. If human waste isn’t your idea of a good time, McFarlane provides us with plenty of horse manure and sheep urine as well.
Besides the crudity and the dated material, there’s also the problem of MacFarlane as leading man. As a voiceover actor (such as the teddy bear in his raunchy but very funny “Ted”), he can be quite effective. On a talk show or as Oscar host he can be an engaging personality. Indeed, he’d probably do very well hosting a talk show himself. However, as a leading man, he’s strictly amateur hour and can’t carry the weight of the film. In his scenes with Neeson and Theron, it’s painfully obvious who the professional actors are and who got the job because he’s sleeping with the director. (Clue: MacFarlane is also the film’s director.)
He attempts to make up for this by putting in some of his friends in bit parts, like Sarah Silverman as a prostitute who has sex with everyone but her hapless fiancé (Giovanni Ribisi) because she’s saving herself for marriage, or Bill Maher as the warm up act for a barn dance, but they’re stuck with the same lame material as everyone else. At least they don’t have to be the victims of any of several gory on-screen deaths that are also part of the alleged comedy.
Now MacFarlane will get to add one more to “A Million Ways To Die In The West”–make a movie as bad as this one.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.