“A Million Ways to Die in the West” is a two-hour string of funny observations about how horrible the frontier was in the 1800s, but heck, I’ve always enjoyed jokes that are taken too far. As such, I think this is a respectable sophomore writing and directing effort in the movie medium from “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane, who debuted with the excellent talking teddy bear flick “Ted” a couple summers back. (As with that film, he co-wrote the script with two of his TV colleagues, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild.)
Opening with those old-fashioned Western credits that list almost everyone involved in the movie against stock images of the desert, punctuated by a traditional score by Joel McNeeley, and taking place on a movie backlot small town called Old Stump, Ariz., “A Million Ways to Die in the West” sets up all the clichés so it can knock them down. It’s a fun ride, and our companions are likable good guys – MacFarlane as mediocre sheep farmer Albert and Charlize Theron as friend-turned-love-interest Anna – and entertaining villains – Amanda Seyfried, who dumps Albert; literal mustache twirler Neil Patrick Harris; and murderous Liam Neeson and his gang.
Although Albert’s story is sweet, this film – like “Ted” before it — isn’t for kids. Sarah Silverman, as the prostitute who dates Albert’s best pal Giovani Ribisi, says things like “Let’s go in the shade and f—.” The violence is comedic but still violent, as with the various ways people get killed at the county fair, from a runaway bull to a camera flashbulb that explodes and kills the photographer and the people getting their picture taken.
However, “A Million Ways” is appropriate for immature adults. It includes possibly the most impressive gag where a laxative slipped into a drink gives someone diarrhea since “Dumb and Dumber” pioneered the form. Also, as fans of MacFarlane’s cartoons have come to expect, there’s a song-and-dance number.
Smartly, this isn’t some sort of time-travel riff. The only anachronistic reference is to Parkinson’s disease, although there is also a “Back to the Future” gag. The opening narration notes that some people seem to be born in the wrong time, and Albert is one of those people. It’s not that he longs for specifics of the future, such as riding in cars instead of on horses. But his sense of civilization’s progress is more honed than most. He can’t necessarily imagine iPods filled with thousands of songs, but he does note that there are only like three songs in existence, and that seems like a small number to him.
MacFarlane has always been good at pointing out the absurdities of modern life, but if I recall from the time before I canceled it from my DVR, “Family Guy” could get thin on ideas. Going back 150 years to make fun of that time period from the perspective of one of its citizens is a great way to open up a new bag of observational humor. “A Million Ways” is a half-hour too long, but it maintains a sense of silly fun long after it has made its point that the frontier was all kinds of awful. I wouldn’t want to live there, but it’s a funny place to visit.