By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Seth MacFarlane is a prodigious talent, which we’re reminded of in the opening credits of A Million Ways to Die in the West, where he’s listed as director, producer, co-writer, and star.
Hey, he’s gotta show off: that’s what showoffs do.
But it’s doubtful that this is what comedy hyphenate MacFarlane wants us thinking about as his western spoof unfolds. And yet those thoughts do intrude on the risible festivities.
MacFarlance’s last big-screen outing was Ted, which was a hoot and a blockbuster. Then came his Oscar-hosting gig, for which he got, unfairly or not, the critical boot.
So now director Seth MacFarlane gets back on the horse with A Million Ways to Die in the West. And this time the creator of TV’s animated comedy “Family Guy” is front and center, not only creating but starring.
A Million Ways to Die in the West will inevitably be compared to Mel Brooks’ eruptively funny Blazing Saddles (1974). The comparison does not do A Million Ways to Die in the West much good, but it also reminds us that it’s been 20 years between drinks in a genre that is anything but crowded.
So even though the laughs are sporadic and the complaints are unavoidable, we’re grateful for the film’s existence.
MacFarlane plays Albert, a timid sheep farmer whose lack of courage, when he backs out of an Arizona duel in 1882 because he has never shot a gun, costs him the fickle woman he loves (played by Amanda Seyfried), who leaves him for an arrogant mustache emporium proprietor (Neil Patrick Harris).
But then Albert meets Anna, played by Charlize Theron, with whom he finds the confidence to display bravery.
And he’ll have to, because his lady love’s husband, Clinch, a notorious and vicious outlaw with a loose trigger finger (Liam Neeson) is back in town and isn’t happy about what he sees.
Meanwhile, Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman, playing an innocent and a prostitute eternally and chastely pledged to each other, enliven the proceedings as the most prominent members of a large supporting ensemble.
And there are surprise cameos as well. How could there not be?
The anachronism-embracing script, which MacFarlane co-wrote with Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, juggles absurdity and vulgarity while de-romanticizing the Old American West of the movie screen, although the film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Michael Barrett in Monument Valley to look like the real thing.
But instead of heroic gunfights and pioneer spirit, there seem to be only contraptions and circumstances promising instant death beyond every cluster of tumbleweed.
MacFarlane’s trademark pushing-the-envelope outrageousness is certainly on display in this bawdy frontier comedy. But there’s a sweetness that he’s grasping for that’s out of reach, with some of the graphic violence and sexual explicitness -– even though we know why it’s there, even though we get the point that the director is making, even though some of it is begrudgingly amusing -– leaving a bad taste in the mouth.
And there’s slapshtick galore as frontier pioneers keep finding old and new ways of biting the dust, to say nothing of the land that feeds them. But with shock value too often the result instead of impure funniness, the smiles and winces outnumber the laughs by plenty.
For performers like Theron and Neeson -– the former an Oscar winner in a dramatic role (Monster), the latter an action hero of late (the Taken flicks) -– this is a chance to display their seldom-used comedy chops. But after giving him credit for some anything-but-obvious casting, we’ve got to chide MacFarlane for giving himself quite so much screen time while more capable acting talents remain at the edge of the screen.
If a movie looks and sounds and feels like an ego-trip vanity project, then it probably is one.
The truth is, MacFarlane’s admittedly entertaining movie might even have benefitted from someone else -– someone who could make the few dramatic moments play more convincingly — in the lead role.
That said, we’ll still gun down 2½ stars out of 4 for the raucous and raunchy but raggedy rawhide romp, A Million Ways to Die in the West. Seth MacFarlane (the actor) comes up a bit short while MacFarlane (the merry moviemaker) sits a bit taller in the blazing saddle.