Seth MacFarlane is the most paradoxical mainstream entertainer working today. The extreme popularity of his discursive comedy in “Family Guy” and its various spin-offs has steadily overtaken the mantle of primetime animation once held strong by “The Simpsons,” while MacFarlane has similarly managed to pervade the live action arena with 2012’s breakout comedy “Ted.” He’s widely appreciated as a major comedic figure with the uncanny ability to smuggle a mixture of highbrow and lowbrow references (from Nikita Kruschev to Jerry Lewis) through a filter of cheap, sophomoric toilet humor. That strength is also his weakness: Everything about MacFarlane’s silly technique relies on the power of the things preceding it.
That’s certainly the case with his latest feature-length effort, “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” a lightweight attempt to emulate the satiric approach to the Western genre already perfected by Mel Brooks with “Blazing Saddles.” MacFarlane can’t compete, so he doesn’t even try. Starring the writer-director in the lead role of a sheep farmer struggling to win back his girl in the wild frontier of Arizona circa 1882, the movie features MacFarlane’s typical joke-a-minute method, with the occasional non-ironic stab at emotion or action sequence to satisfy his base of college stoners eager to embrace the freewheeling style. It’s like the comedian has sped through the sets of countless Westerns, comedy guns blasting away, to the baffled amusement of anyone willing to pay attention. That tendency to blindly embrace MacFarlane’s sloppiness has made him a very successful man, but with so many random attempts to make his audience laugh, it’s no surprise that some of the jokes actually land.
In “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” MacFarlane loads up enough zaniness to make for a generally enjoyable mashup, particularly because the genial plot affords him a solid backdrop. Unlike the inane premise of “Ted,” in which the prospects of a foul-mouthed teddy bear can only go so far, “A Million Ways to Die in the West” develops a reasonably engaging premise involving the efforts by klutzy sheepherder Albert (MacFarlane) to win back his girl Louise (Amanda Seyfried) with the assistance of curious drifter Anna (Charlize Theron), who’s the secretly the wife of dangerous bandit Clinch (Liam Neeson). The story is beside the point, but provides enough coherence to prevent MacFarlane’s relentless goofiness from devolving into incoherence.
MacFarlane’s talented cast plays along. While Anna helps Albert gain confidence, he copes with constant mockery from Louise’s newest suitor (Neil Patrick Harris). While MacFarlane’s bland delivery fits his everyman character, Harris frequently steals the show as a cartoonish villain giddy over his excessive mustache, with the obsession extending to a bedroom gag and one ridiculously catchy song. But it’s Theron who truly wrestles control of the material, giving her tough-minded anti-hero a touch of the individualistic attitude she last displayed in “Young Adult,” in this case elevating it to bawdy excesses. Populating her dialogue with f-bombs galore, she’s like every repressed damsel in distress from the Western canon dead-set on revenge at once.
However, MacFarlane deserves credit for the effectiveness of several gonzo digressions, several of which are genuinely funny. A prolonged drug sequence involving floating sheep and vulture testicles marks the closest thing to a virtuoso piece of filmmaking he has done. Add in a couple of standout celebrity cameos (Christopher Lloyd with his DeLorean time machine, Gilbert Gottfried as a hilarious Abraham Lincoln), plus Sarah Silverman in a supporting role as a dirty prostitute unwilling to sleep with her partner before marriage, a recurring joke about the absence of smiles in old photographs and an entire town shocked by the sight of a dollar bill — and “A Million Ways to Die in the West” has enough wit to justify its limited appeal. MacFarlane is so eager to please that it’s hard not to get swept up in his efforts.
Nevertheless, “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is weakened by MacFarlane’s usual problems with half-baked and mean-spirited wisecracks. There are the usual throwaway jokes about pedophilia and fat people, not to mention innumerable fart jokes in which the farting isn’t a punchline but the joke itself. (One prolonged shit-in-the-hat sequence involving laxatives marks the director’s brazen attempt to outdo “Blazing Saddles,” which isn’t worth the effort.)
“A Million Ways to Die in the West” lacks the inspired lunacy of Mel Brooks’ timeless Western, and won’t last the ages as a seminal swipe at the genre, but at least MacFarlane gives the lark a point. His title refers to the expansive dangers of the Wild West, which his character outlines in an amusingly extensive monologue early on, chronicling dangers that include the prescription of an “ear nail” for the common cold and the sight of the town’s mayor lying dead in plain sight for days. The Western is the only distinctive genre to both celebrates the country’s iconography and tap into its darker ingredients, which allows MacFarlane to assail American identity more coherently than he has before.
Of course, that may have more to do with the Western’s lasting power than MacFarlane’s eagerness to horse around with it. “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is notably hitting theaters in the immediate aftermath of the Cannes Film Festival, where no less than four movies riffed on the Western formula.
Chief among them, Tommy Lee Jones’ “The Homesman” delivered a much more sophisticated range of humor among its peculiar tonal shifts in its irreverent tale of a pioneer woman (Hilary Swank) attempting to transport a trio of crazy housewives with the efforts of a rascally drifter (Jones). Though not every twist in “The Homesman” works, Jones does manage to take an inventive approach with the genre by exploring its implicit misogyny over the ages.
Then there’s “The Rover,” Australian director David Michod’s uneven post-apocalyptic tale involving the plight of a squinty-eyed badass (Guy Pearce) as he attempts to recover his stolen vehicle. Michod uses the barren, dusty Western landscape to explore the absence of traditional morals at the edges of civilization. That outlook takes on more compelling dimensions in the South America-set “El Ardor,” in which Gael Garcia Bernal embodies the traditional Man With No Name figure in the middle of the rain forest, implying that the lawless realm found in countless oaters has traveled elsewhere. And in the heavily stylized “The Salvation,” Mads Mikkelsen stars as a lone shooter on a mission for revenge that reduces the Western to its bare essentials.
None of these movies have been deemed rousing successes, but collectively they reflect an intriguing effort to think through the values and creative possibilities afforded by a genre that has routinely explored American mythology from the inside out. From John Ford’s patriotic visions to the allegorical dimensions of the Cold War-era “High Noon” and the Vietnam analogies of Clint Eastwood’s best efforts, the Western has always offered meaty fodder for wresting with relevant attitudes.
MacFarlane’s work has never aimed that high — but love him or hate him, he still ranks as one of America’s most prominent storytellers, so it’s no surprise that he would tackle this prototypical American tradition. If anyone can rejuvenate the commercial prospects of the Western, it’s him; whether it needed his clumsy broad strokes, with so many fresher approaches in the pipeline, presents a different question. If the Western will survive with quality intact, there’s no doubting that the substantial efforts will migrate to the sidelines, much like the iconography of the Western itself. In “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” the humor only goes so far. But if this is the final frontier for the studio-produced Western, there are worst fates than to go down than a barrage of shits and giggles.
“A Million Ways to Die in the West” opens nationwide this Friday.