When Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West opens with lush theme music, gorgeous shots of the desert, and a top-notch credit font, it conjures the brief hope that the Family Guy creator and Ted cowriter/director has found a way to redirect his vast pop-culture free-association into the realm of genre parody, not just non-sequitur referencing. Even without going full-on Blazing Saddles (what can or does?), the movie has a sharper comic hook than Ted‘s. (The logline, in case you forgot it: what if a teddy bear came to life and acted like a Seth MacFarlane character?) MacFarlane himself stars as Albert, a sheep farmer in the Old West who treats his surroundings with a half-terrified, half-amused hostility. Albert does not like his environment at all: the shoddy medical care, the hair-trigger tempers (and triggers), basically all the different ways you can get killed living at this time in American history. Essentially, he’s playing the Early Woody Allen role: the coward who finds himself in a genre picture, squirming and wisecracking his way toward heroism.
Many of these wisecracks, about how no one smiles in photos or the suspicious nature of medical elixirs, are funny. They also resemble a stand-up routine, maybe because MacFarlane’s velvety pipes, so perfect for cartoon voiceover, seem, at this point, incapable of pure deadpan. Moreover, Albert’s self-awareness about the horribleness of the West extends to the rest of the cast. It would be easy to lend his modern sensibility to Anna (Charlize Theron), the unhappy wife of a deadly outlaw (Liam Neeson) who arrives in Albert’s town to lay low; it gives them a way to bond. But his buddy Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and Edward’s fiancée Ruth (Sarah Silverman) engage in contemporary-sounding talk, too, and hardly anyone in the movie seems even mock-authentically period. Sly spikes of wit about the roughness of the West get flattened into a 2D gag strip.
Stylistic quibbles aside, those gags run hit-and-miss; maybe it’s just my general distaste for MacFarlane that made the misses linger. There’s the usual ironic racism, of course, supposed harmlessness due to Old West setting subbing in for supposed harmlessness due to choice of medium. But there’s also a sour running gag about Ribisi being a cuckolded virgin engaged to Silverman’s hooker, who insists on waiting for marriage as she recounts her busy day of marathon fucking. MacFarlane has a solid cast at his disposal, but his use of Silverman, as well as Amanda Seyfried, suggests he hires more for willingness to say (or listen to) his outrageous lines than to bring anything to them. Silverman aces a few line deliveries, but while Seyfried can be funny (see Mean Girls or any number of her fascinatingly odd talk show appearances), she isn’t funny here; MacFarlane and company essentially hire her to look pretty and be a secret good sport when they make a joke about her unnervingly big eyes.
Theron, meanwhile, is tasked with forming a stronger rapport with MacFarlane, which she does charmingly, even when it involves her telling him how funny and smart he is. “You’ve made something of yourself out here,” she says, sounding like she’s talking MacFarlane out of leaving LA. As with Ted, the earnest business of the film’s final 30 minutes lands closer to Adam Sandler territory than Judd Apatow. MacFarlane has some fun playing around with the conventions and absurdities of a Main Street shoot-out, but it takes an awful long time to get there; the two-hour running time includes a long hallucination sequence that serves primarily to reprise a bunch of jokes MacFarlane must assume the audience fell in love with just 30 or 40 minutes earlier. And maybe audiences will fall in love; a lot of folks at the all-media screening were in stitches for the movie’s pushier bits of grossness. A Million Ways to Die in the West suggests a greater ambition than whatever animated Ted, but it’s too complacent in its easy laughs to follow through.