The main draw of Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West is less its recreation (or demystification) of mildewed stereotypes from Hollywood’s golden era than it is MacFarlane himself, starring as a churlish sheep farmer named Albert. The film’s obsession with anachronism is made explicit whenever Albert goes on an extended rant about how much frontier life sucks, which is often—establishing his character as a decidedly 21st-century wet blanket stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time. The supporting performances (Liam Neeson as a sadist, Charlize Theron as a fish-out-of-water gunslinger who woos Albert, Sarah Silverman as a bubbly hooker, Neil Patrick Harris as a prissy moustache connoisseur) are uniformly game, but it doesn’t make much of a difference. Albert’s whiny point-scoring is such an explicit appeal for audience sympathy that the dialogue feels derived from a malnourished stand-up routine.
The filmmaker’s inability to find a way to say what he wants cinematically—as opposed to saying it by yelling—makes the film an arduously predictable experience, even if its side observations about western movies are worth a few uneasy laughs. When two men in a saloon have a confrontation, the place immediately explodes into a miasma of impossibly fake fist-swinging stage combat, whereby MacFarlane and Giovanni Ribisi, as Albert’s best friend Edward, have fun pretending to punch each other just to avoid drawing attention to themselves. But if the fourth-wall-busting finale of Blazing Saddles was the film inevitably coming up for air, MacFarlane’s screenplay (co-written by regular collaborators Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild) jackknifes in and out of committing to its 1882 Arizona backdrop just enough to keep the postmodern observations flowing from start to finish, a halfhearted study in what was left out of our shared Old West clichés and, more urgently, an attempt to marry them to our contemporary scatalogical ones.
MacFarlane’s execution and timing are robust enough that, like the epochal record scratch, the supposedly naughty jokes usually signal a shocking overturn in both form and content. But once the dust settles, you’re left with, what, yet another interminably drawn-out fart gag? A heavy-handed jab at Christian ignorance and hypocrisy, fielded from the perch of MacFarlane’s modern-day studio bungalow? Like in the best episodes of Family Guy, MacFarlane’s ability to stop time and prolong a gag can work miracles if the gag is actually funny (or, at least, clever), but most of these are neither, and A Million Ways to Die in the West’s jittery overreliance on undermining itself is the closest it gets to taking a risk. The film fails the wager early and often, but the ticket-buyers who’ve never encountered this humor before—probably preteen boys—will love it.