“Family Guy” mastermind Seth MacFarlane’s first movie, Ted, a huge commercial hit in 2012, was mostly on-target but showed signs of undisciplined, “Family Guy”-esque self-indulgence. MacFarlane’s followup, A Million Ways to Die in the West — which he again directed and co-wrote with “FG” collaborators Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild — unfortunately follows this pattern even further. It has a handful of laughs, about as many as a typical episode of Family Guy. But where five or six chuckles in 22 minutes isn’t a bad average, five or six chuckles spread out over 117 minutes is dismal. The bleak stretches between funny parts only serve to underscore how astonishing it is that a lightweight farce is almost two hours long in the first place.
MacFarlane, in his first major role as a human man, plays Albert Stark, a cowardly sheep farmer in the Old West whose daily mission is to provide anachronistic commentary on the deplorable conditions of frontier living. In Arizona in the 1880s, death can come at any moment from violence, disease, an Indian attack, a minor injury, or even a trip to the doctor. Albert is the only one who seems to be bothered by how perilous the times are, and he riffs on it constantly to whoever’s within earshot, including his friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), Edward’s actual-literal-whore girlfriend, Ruth (Sarah Silverman), and Albert’s own romantic interest, Louise (Amanda Seyfried). He’s like a congenial stand-up comic who’s always “on.”
When he chickens out of a gunfight for what we gather is not the first time, Albert loses Louise, who dumps him for Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), a manly fellow who runs the town’s moustachery. (Mustaches, or moustaches as they were spelled in olde tymes, are a big deal.) Albert reckons the only way to win Louise back is to win a gunfight, and here to help him practice is his new pal Anna (Charlize Theron), a beautiful, enigmatic sharpshooter who’s lying low while she waits for her outlaw husband (Liam Neeson) and their gang to rejoin her. Anna thinks the way Albert does, and their friendship will surely blossom.
The writers’ strategy was apparently to have each character express every thought in the crudest, bluntest way possible, with 21st-century profanity and slang. But once the shock value wears off — you know, after about three lines — the incongruity of Old West people swearing like sailors loses its humor. (To paraphrase The Incredibles, when everything is filthy, nothing is filthy.) Most of the gags that do work, like describing Ruth’s prostitute activities in frank, businesslike terms, are subsequently beaten into the ground through repetition. Even the musical number (of course there’s a musical number) is uncharacteristically flat by MacFarlane’s usual standards.
Yet in other areas, the film is under-written and sloppy. The main character is poorly defined, somehow an abrasive loudmouth and a timid pansy all at once. MacFarlane, for all his skills as a voice actor, doesn’t have the physical presence or charisma to carry off a well-written character, let alone this one. His nemesis, the mustache man, is said to be a terrible jerk, but as far as we know the only “bad” thing he’s ever done is date Albert’s ex-girlfriend. Liam Neeson’s murderous outlaw character isn’t given anything funny to do. Ruth and Edward disappear for half the movie. A few of the celebrity cameos are amusing, but a few more are random and pointless (random and pointless? From the writers of “Family Guy”?!) except as a means of drawing attention to themselves. The formulaic story moves slowly and is dragged out to the point of feeling interminable.
Neil Patrick Harris does his cocky-charming NPH thing to good effect, and Charlize Theron is winning as Albert’s eventual soulmate. And like I said, there are bits here and there that absolutely work; there just aren’t enough of them. Tighter writing, a more focused director, a better leading man, and 40 percent fewer poop- and semen-related jokes would have improved the film considerably, although that’s probably true of most films, not just this one.
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