There’s one good meta-joke in A Million Ways to Die in the West, Seth MacFarlane’s Western parody-cum-vehicle for his own charm: that life on the frontier in 1880 is venal and backward, and that “everyone wants to kill you.” That’s deftly evoked in an early gag, in which inept sheepherder Albert (MacFarlane) gestures to a corpse on the street and explains that it’s the mayor, killed several days before and never moved, now fodder for wolves. There are also good bits about the absence of smiles in old photographs, a nice play on words involving horse shit, and funny cameos by characters from other movies (though not, alas, by Mel Brooks, who ought by rights to be here). Otherwise, MacFarlane serves up over-the-top gore, expulsive diarrhea, Sarah Silverman’s vagina, and A-list actors dressed like Western archetypes against glorious wide-screen vistas using dirty words. The thinking must have been: Add “fuck” to a line and it’s har-dee-har-har.
MacFarlane got by with a foul-mouthed giant teddy bear in Ted, no small thanks to straight man Mark Wahlberg and his dopey deadpan. He puts himself in the center of A Million Ways … and looks like a bland, last-minute replacement for a comedian on the level of Bob Hope or even Don Knotts, both of whom took a turn trying to twirl a six-shooter under the tutelage of a foxy female gunfighter. Here the gal is Charlize Theron, who plays the wife of a ghoulishly cruel Irish outlaw (Liam Neeson, playing it straight) in town to scout out the banks. Naturally, she finds herself drawn to MacFarlane because he’s such a sweet, sensitive, empathetic male. That’s a good one, MacFarlane as a proto-feminist. Bob Hope leering at Jane Russell’s boobs felt more progressive.
The other stars? Amanda Seyfried wanders in under a lot of blonde ringlets as the shallow bitch who spurns MacFarlane because he won’t shoot anyone, leaving him for Neil Patrick Harris as the wax-mustachioed owner of a mustache emporium. It’s Harris who gets the expulsive diarrhea, how nice for him. Giovanni Ribisi is the tender virgin affianced to prostitute Silverman, who screws ten men a day and has a butthole sore from overuse, but won’t have sex with Ribisi because “We’re Christian.” This is the umpteenth terrible role for Silverman, who plays stupid instead of her specialty, which is brilliantly stupid. Native Americans — hell, let’s call them what they are in this context, “Injuns”—show up to crack wise in subtitles and pass MacFarlane the wacky bowl.
What saddens me most about A Million Ways to Die in the West is that I was primed to love it, and the opening widescreen blood-red credits made me even giddier with expectation. Some of the gags do land — maybe one in four. But the genre-parody genre with big stars and poop jokes needs a little more class than MacFarlane is capable of providing.