"Painless" Peter Potter (a.k.a. Paleface), Jessie W. Haywood (a.k.a. The Shakiest Gun in the West), to say nothing of Gov. William J. Le Petomane and his disloyal subjects, your legacies are secure. Writer-producer-director-star and all-around Renaissance man Seth MacFarlane, from whose loins A Million Ways to Die in the West hath sprung (actually, given the movie’s obsession with all things anal, it might have sprung from somewhere else), has gushed a lot in junket promotional interviews about how much he loves Westerns. And he’s obviously seen enough of them to know that his movie needs to hit all the obvious touchstones—gunfighters, grizzled prospectors, saloon fights, a score nodding toward the majestic direction of Elmer Bernstein, Max Steiner, Dmitri Tiomkin, and of course the wide-screen panoramas of Monument Valley intended to inspire his presumably self-aware audience to put a check mark next to "John Ford" on the laundry list of the movie’s references. (Almost as if MacFarlane were worried about kick-starting comparisons to Blazing Saddles before the comedy actually began, he’s consigned his would-be-rousing theme song, sung by Alan Jackson, to the end credits instead, and it turns out to be a wise move— Jackson comes off pretty tepid next to the straight-up whip-cracking Frankie Laine turning Mel Brooks’ deceptively straightforward lyrics into sly, satisfying satire.)
Yessir, all the pieces seem to be in place for another rip-roaring comedy western. But then the action begins--Albert Stark, the hostile wise-ass played by Seth MacFarlane himself, in his first (perhaps his last?) leading role, steps into a confrontation with a cranky citizen bearing a very big pistol. Stark, a sheep farmer who likes to carry on about how shitty and dangerous life is in the American West (hence the cumbersome title), begins trying to distract his adversary with rapid-fire riffing that wouldn’t be out of place in the mouth of Peter Griffin, and whatever goodwill the director may have carried over from his previous hit, the raunchy teddy bear comedy Ted, begins to leak out of the movie in a panic.
The only thing more tiresome than MacFarlane the actor is MacFarlane the writer-director, who not surprisingly relies on that relentless pattern of caustic asides and observations, often followed by cutaways to wacky illustrations of same, which will be familiar to anyone who’s ever grown weary in front of an episode of Family Guy or American Dad. At least in the context of the Old West it’s harder for the triple hyphenate to mindlessly riff on current pop culture, but he still gets his licks in on the old school—one riotous flashback features Gilbert Gottfried as Abraham Lincoln—and somehow that context doesn't prevent the rest of MacFarlane’s dialogue from sounding like it’s coming out of the mouths of pampered Hollywood douchebags circa 2014 who wouldn’t know a saddlebag from a swag bag. At one point Charlize Theron, playing MacFarlane’s love interest, who also happens to be the wife of murderous gunslinger Clinch Leatherwood, underlines her director’s radical thesis that "the West fucking sucks," and all I could do was admit that it certainly does, as far as MacFarlane has dared to imagine it anyway.
There is a positive about MacFarlane’s presence in this picture though-- it underlines just how important Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis (and Sam Jones) were to Ted, a very crude, very funny movie which gave the audience something to cling to besides its creator’s juvenile wit, a wit which itself was sharper for having to bounce off of personalities as strong as his own. MacFarlane is the whole show in A Million Ways to Die in the West, and he seems bent on testing the audience’s limit on his very special mixture of self-loathing schlub and self-satisfied smarm. Separated from his ironic Oscar show emcee persona he’s charmless. He, and the snotty personality with which he invests the movie itself, wears the audience down to a nub.
MacFarlane also wastes a game cast. Sarah Silverman and Giovanni Ribisi are sidelined with probably the movie’s best idea. They’re a sweet Christian couple—he repairs shoes for a living, she bangs cowboys (loudly) in the second-floor bedrooms of the local watering hole. But they’re saving the consummation of their own romance for their wedding night. It seems like a nifty comic premise, especially well-suited to Silverman’s own way with wide-eyed, inappropriately forthright observations, but the joke never expands-- repeated too often, it drifts away along with the characters themselves. Liam Neeson glowers impressively as Clinch, but he never gets a moment where he gets to turn the notion of a burly bad guy (with an Irish accent!) inside-out. And all apologies to those who worship at the feet of Charlize Theron, but her appeal continues to escape me. She’s always self-serious, but here she’s stuck in the role of the good girl redeemer, and she doesn’t have much in the way of instinct for climbing on board the movie’s raunchy wavelength—in fact, she’s the only performer who doesn’t appear to have a sense of humor at all. And most damningly, she eagerly guffaws at all of MacFarlane’s jokes and charming asides, the glamorous Old West equivalent of all those hapless soldiers in Good Morning, Vietnam who were contractually bound to find everything Robin Williams said hilarious in the extreme.
All the envelope-pushing in the taste department just seems desperate here too, as it does on MacFarlane’s TV shows. The obvious fixation on the rectum isn’t unexpected — rampant diarrhea, anal sex (at one point Silverman demurs from sitting at a table, opting to "give my asshole a rest") and, of course plain old flatulence, they’re all showcased. (Bad gas was funny around Brooks’ campfire, but here’s it’s just another way the West is out to kill ya.) What’s really surprising is how tedious it all is, how quickly the movie flat-lines because of it, and how conservative, for all its "Look, Ma! I said ‘fuck’ in the Old West!" flaunting of propriety, the movie reveals itself to be— there isn’t a hint of the meta-maniacal auto-destruct impulse that reduced Blazing Saddles to such memorable madness. There also isn’t a moment in this movie that can stand beside Madeline Kahn channeling Marlene Dietrich, or Alex Karras punching out a horse (MacFarlane tries, and fails, to up the ante here), or the groundbreaking/wind-breaking aural-olfactory assault of that bean-heavy campfire menu. The cowboys in Blazing Saddles may have smelled bad, but MacFarlane’s just whiff.