If you measure a comedy by how many times you laughed, Seth MacFarlane’s “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” at least for me, is a middling success. If you measure a comedy by how many misfires it has, then this film is a failure. It’s a hit-or-miss extravaganza – a western spoof that tries to make “Blazing Saddles” look tame by comparison. In more ways than one, MacFarlane is trying to outgross Mel Brooks.
This is not, to put it mildly, an exalted ambition. After all, if you’ve heard one fart joke, you’ve heard 'em all. (There are a million ways to do more than die in this film.) And MacFarlane, in his first leading live-action role, is such a weightless presence that he blands out almost every scene he’s in.
He’s playing Albert, a cowardly sheep farmer in 1882 Arizona whose girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) has just dumped him for the town’s scurvy mustache-grooming magnate (Neil Patrick Harris). But true love beckons in the hourglass form of Anna (Charlize Theron), a moll masquerading as an upstanding new neighbor but who is, in fact, married to the territory’s most vicious gunslinger (Liam Neeson). Theron gives this movie its (sole) touch of class.
MacFarlane also produced, directed, and co-wrote this film, so you can’t say he was just a hired hand. I wasn’t a big fan of “Ted,” one of the smash comedies of recent years, but it was more irreverent than “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” which, even when it’s making icky jokes about a saloon prostitute (Sarah Silverman), is curiously chaste. MacFarlane's talent – or at least his appeal – is that he gift-wraps scurrility as wholesome family entertainment.
My tolerance for gross-out humor is higher than the average pointy-headed critic’s, and, out of self-preservation, I have trained myself to take my pleasures where I find them in these lumpy jamborees. But maybe we would all be better off if we simply sat through a best-moments trailer instead. Grade: B- (Rated R for strong crude and sexual content, language throughout, some violence and drug material.)