The title of Seth MacFarlane's potty-brained parody, A Million Ways to Die in the West, alludes to the rampant mortal dangers facing the pitiable citizens of the Arizona Territory, circa 1882: venomous snakes, killer tumbleweed, barroom brawls, cholera, poisons, marauding Indians, and the occasional gunslinging outlaw.
But the title also serves as commentary on the "comedy" in MacFarlane's self-aggrandizing and seriously unpleasant western spoof. This movie feels like it has a million jokes, and every single one arrives with a lethal thud.
MacFarlane, the Family Guy creator, controversial one-time Oscar host, and writer/director of the gleefully crude, talking-plush-toy comedy Ted, makes his first mistake casting himself in the lead.
He's Albert Stark, a mild-mannered sheep farmer in love with pretty Louise (Amanda Seyfried). MacFarlane's face is boyish, bland, but also kind of creepy (he appears to have no eyelashes). If the idea was to cast a milquetoast guy in a milquetoast role, it backfires. Even an out-and-out farce needs someone with a modicum of charisma at its core.
A Million Ways to Die in the West establishes its classy and sophisticated comic strategy with an opening High Noon face-off between Albert and a disgruntled, trigger-happy cowpoke. As Albert tries to reason with the guy staring him down on the dusty street of this dusty town, jokes about Parkinson's disease, Asians, and fellatio ensue.
Before this way-too-long endeavor heads off into the proverbial sunset, its slew of gags about excrement (human, equine, ruminant mammals), intestinal gases, bodily fluids, sex, and genitalia is augmented by truly offensive bits at the expense of blacks and women. Take the county fair arcade game "Shoot a Runaway Slave," please.
Charlize Theron joins MacFarlane at the shooting gallery. She's Anna, the hard-riding wife of the outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson). He likes to slap her around, and for some reason, she takes it. Until she meets Albert, and teaches him how to shoot a gun - at cans and whiskey bottles and animated African American figures fleeing for their lives.
Racism, misogyny. A laff riot, right?
Mel Brooks' 1970s sagebrush spoof Blazing Saddles - clearly an inspiration for MacFarlane - shared a similarly sophomoric, scatalogical sensibility. But there was nothing hateful about the Brooks classic. In fact, the running joke was that its hero was a black sheriff (Cleavon Little) in an all-white town. Brooks satirized racism. He didn't endorse it, or reinforce it.
People clearly like MacFarlane. Not just fans of his hit animated TV shows and Ted, but industry folk, too. Seyfried, Neeson, Theron, and Neil Patrick Harris (as the mustachioed fop who steals Albert's girl) are all willing participants. Even Ewan McGregor and Ryan Reynolds pop up, in blink-and-you'll-miss-them cameos.
A Million Ways to Die in the West's conceit is that its protagonist is a modern-day guy plopped down in a send-up version of the mythic Hollywood oater. MacFarlane's hero may walk and talk like he's from the here and now, but it's a here and now that should be long gone.
It's beyond bad taste. It's just bad.
A Million Ways to Die in the West * (Out of four stars)
Directed by Seth MacFarlane. With Seth MacFarlane, Neil Patrick Harris, Liam Neeson, Amanda Seyfried, Charlize Theron. Distributed by Universal Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 56 mins.
Parent’s guide: R (profanity, crude humor, sex, nudity, violence, adult themes).
Playing at: area theaters.