Mel Brooks needn’t lose any sleep.
The spirit of 1974’s “Blazing Saddles” hovers tauntingly over “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” Seth MacFarlane’s (he produced it, directed it, co-wrote it and stars in it) new comic Western.
“Saddles” is, of course, the blue chip standard for rude cowboy comedy, as hilarious now as the day it was released.
By comparison “A Million Ways…” is a slog. It’s got a couple of wildly comic moments — but only a couple.
The main problem is not that its humor is overwhelmingly puerile (graphic jokes about sex and bodily functions) but that it isn’t much of a movie. Oh, it looks great, with lots of gorgeous wide-screen cinematography of Monument Valley (John Ford/John Wayne country) and a visual style dishing lots of rising crane shots (MacFarlane must have been studying Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West”).
But there’s no there there. And as storytelling it’s a meandering, shapeless affair. It’s not even a particularly good satire of Western movie conventions.
MacFarlane — an astonishingly productive comic force (TV’s “The Family Guy,” “American Dad!” and “The Cleveland Show,” not to mention the 2012 feature “Ted” and hosting the Oscars) — seems most at home in the half-hour (which is to say 22-minute) animated TV format. He struggles to fill this 2-hour film with jokes, and a few hit home. But they’re not in service of a story — or characters — we care about.
And let’s get out in the open MacFarlane’s biggest mistake: Casting himself as the lead character, Albert, a miserable/angry sheep farmer in 1882 Arizona.
MacFarlane has no range. He sports a half-hearted smirk and… and that’s about it. I don’t much like watching him. So there.
The yarn finds Albert bitching and moaning — the running joke is that his dialogue is distinctively modern while everyone else talks in Western-speak — about what an awful place the frontier is. Everything and everyone — wildlife, weather, Indians, barroom brawlers — conspires to kill the weak individual. The glorious Wild West, Albert protests, is “a disgusting, awful cesspool of despair…we should wear coffins as clothes.”
To make matters worse, his big-eyed girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) has thrown him over to canoodle with Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), the foppish/bullying proprietor of the town’s moustache emporium. (You can tell the nerds from the real men because the nerds lack facial hair.)
Albert is saved by the new girl in town, Anna (Charlize Theron), who befriends him in his efforts to win back Louise and even teaches him how to handle a six-shooter. Anna is posing as a homesteader but in fact she is the wife of notorious outlaw Clinch (Liam Neeson), who has sent her to this arid collection of hovels until the outrage over his latest depredation blows over.
Anna dreads seeing her hubby again — he’s a creep and a brute. Having experienced the mean side of the West, she’s attracted to the gentle, self-deprecating Albert.
You can see where this is going.
Among the supporting cast are Giovanni Ribisi as Albert’s best bud, an ineffectual innocent in love with Ruth (Sarah Silverman), a whore with a heart of cotton who treats outrageous sex acts with the matter-of-factness of a cashier making change. Watch carefully and you’ll see cameos by the likes of Bill Maher and Ryan Reynolds.
The film does have a few good throwaway jokes. Watching a kid play with a newfangled toy — a stick and hoop — Albert wonders whether all this high technology isn’t robbing youngsters of their creativity.
And there’s a sublimely oddball sequence late in the proceedings when Albert is befriended by Cochise (Wes Studi) and his warriors (who talk in Apache, with subtitles, though their translated words make them sound an awful lot like modern-day stoners). Our hero takes peyote and embarks on an extended hallucination that is equal parts Salvador Dali and James Cameron.
I’ll say this, at least, about “A Million Ways to Die in the West” — it singlehandedly fills this year’s quota of diarrhea jokes.