Mel Brooks’ classic Western spoof Blazing Saddles is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.
Seth MacFarlane’s own Western comedy, A Million Ways to Die in the West, makes one appreciate the genius of Brooks even more.
Set in 1880’s Arizona, A Million Ways to Die in the West stars MacFarlane — who also directed and co-wrote the film — as a cowardly Arizona sheep farmer named Albert, who despises life in the Wild West.
In the comedy’s best running gag, Albert repeatedly mocks the brutality of the frontier through the sullen faces captured in the era’s black-and-white photographs, the mythologized bar-room brawls, and, as the film‘s title suggests, the myriad ways Old West residents could meet their demise, from rattlesnake bites and flatulence to quack doctors and dysentery.
A Million Ways to Die in the West: ★★½
Directed by Seth MacFarlane. Written by MacFarlane , Alec Sulkin, and Wellesley Wild.
Playing at Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated R for strong, crude, and sexual content, language throughout, some violence and drug material.
Running time: 116 minutes.
Cast: Seth MacFarlane, Giovanni Ribisi, Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson.
What makes Albert’s miserable life bearable is the girlfriend he loves, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), who promptly dumps him after he chickens out of a gunfight. Even more painful to his ego is that Louise falls for a wealthy and egotistical businessman named Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), who owns the local mustache grooming business and taunts Albert’s lack of a ’stache because he can’t afford the upkeep on the stylish facial hair.
It‘s when Albert hits rock bottom that he meets Anna (Charlize Theron), a pistol-packing expert shot who offers to help him win back his ex.
Albert and Anna bond over shooting lessons, sharing a cookie baked with pot, and in the weird dangers lurking at the town‘s annual carnival. But just as they begin to fall for each other, Anna’s murderous husband Clinch (Liam Neeson) arrives along with his outlaw gang and forces Albert into a showdown.
Owing less to Blazing Saddles than it does junior-high fart jokes and the F-word, A Million Ways to Die in the West is a broad spectrum of pop culture references, genital jokes, and gross-out gags. If you’ve seen MacFarlane’s hysterical 2012 comedy hit Ted, you know what to expect. Just know it’s best to lower expectations: While A Million Ways to Die in the West’s risque humor can be laugh-out-loud funny, the jokes are surprisingly scattered.
MacFarlane is best known for his voicework on his trio of Fox animated sitcoms and as the sex-and-drug crazed talking teddy bear in Ted. He has leading-man looks, but is uneasy in his first onscreen performance; he practically jabs the audience in the ribs after every gag or punch line, pushing his product like a used car salesman desperate to make a sale.
Theron, as the Oscar-winning actress demonstrated in an Arrested Development guest-run, is a natural at comedy, and Harris, as Albert‘s nemesis, steals most of his scenes, whether participating in a wonderful song-and-dance routine about the importance of the mustache in attracting women, or when having his own awkward Bridesmaids stomach issues in a very public way.
Seyfried’s comedy contribution is either as putdowns or reaction shots, though she’s a good sport about the insults thrown her way. The other big laughs are from Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman, who play an engaged couple abstaining from premarital sex, even though she’s a popular prostitute at the saloon. As one would expect from MacFarlane, there are plenty of sex and bodily fluid jokes to go around.
In a missed opportunity, however, it‘s a barely there Neeson who is left out of the comedy mix, as the actor plays the chief villain less for laughs than for plot purposes.
In fact, MacFarlane and cowriters Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild expend too much of their film’s energy on such trivial purposes to a comedy, with few comic payoffs and at the expense of the kind of rapid pace a comedy such as this requires. And at nearly two hours long, A Million Ways to Die in the West is also in need of a good edit.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.