It takes guts to make a Western spoof. The shadow of the medium’s gold standard, Blazing Saddles, looms very large indeed. Still, Seth MacFarlane (he of Family Guy and Ted fame) wants to try. The end result? A solid slice of gross-out gratuity and saddle sore scatology entitled A Million Ways to Die in the West that provides plenty of laughs, though none of its predecessor’s shocking social satire. Mel Brooks wanted to tackle racism and Civil Rights. MacFarlane is more interested in sheep penis and explosive diarrhea. Still, you can only truly judge a comedy by its ability to make you laugh, and AMWTDITW does just that. There may be long stretches where the clichéd storyline could have been trimmed, but overall, ribs are tickled and sides are split.
Albert Stark (MacFarlane) is a rancher in the town of Old Stump. He is known as a coward, and recently lost his best girl Louise (Amanda Seyfried) when he talked his way out of a duel. Depressed, he is thinking about leaving for San Francisco when a stranger named Anna (Charlize Theron) rolls into town. At first, Albert is confused about his feelings. He wants Louise back, but thinks Anna is pretty special as well. Sadly, his best friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and his prostitute gal pal (Sarah Silverman) are no help. When Louise’s new man Foy (Neil Patrick Harris) challenges Albert to another gunfight, Anna helps our hero learn to shoot and they begin to fall in love. But trouble’s a-brewin’ Turns out, she’s the wife of one of the West’s most feared outlaws (Liam Neeson), and he’s coming back to Old Stump to claim what’s his.
When it’s not busy trying to make MacFarlane’s sad-sack salt of the earth into a leading man, AMWTDITW is hysterical. It offers jokes that run the gamut from clever to corny, highbrow to lower than Peter Griffin’s IQ. There are shout-outs to the genre’s past, cameos which add to the homage, and a mandatory musical number that’s fun, if frivolous. When it’s clicking, it’s a cracker. When it’s not, you imagine a trail of tumbleweeds arriving to mask the silence. When it comes to character, the movie is only concerned with MacFarlane. Everyone else is drawn in the most minimalist way possible. Take Seyfried’s Louise. She is pegged as a money grubber. Harris’ haberdasher is her cash cow. Ribisi’s clueless suitor doesn’t mind that his betrothed has sex with other men throughout the day. Ms. Whore, on the other hand, is blissfully devoted to her man… and her Christian values?
As nothing more than placeholders in the narrative, MacFarlane must carry the rest of the weight and he’s capable, if not complete sure of himself. Even with Theron, who has a breezy style to match her natural beauty, he constantly pushes. He just seems uncomfortable in his skin, and it’s not because of the role he’s playing. Even with an Airplane! sized stack of jokes behind him, MacFarlane wants more. What AMWTDITW lacks, however, is subtext. Just complaining about how bad life is during the era is not enough. A lampoon should have a solid POV, even if it’s just taking on the tired tropes from the past. AMWTDITW doesn’t even do that. It simply uses its sagebrush setting as a backdrop for contemporary comedy.
Luckily, the fun far outweighs the frivolity. Sure, MacFarlane the director could have axed a good 20 minutes of mindless nonsense and turned AMWTDITW into a lean, mean, 90-minute laugh machine, and Neeson’s bookend appearances could have been more rewarding. But none of that really matters. As a slacker comedy made by a wannabe contemporary lounge act, it succeeds. Anything beyond that, and we have to look backward, to a town called Rock Ridge, for any spoof substance.