Seth MacFarlane is one of the most love-him-or-hate-him figures in comedy. Aside from the morality police and all the other groups he’s offended (sometimes seemingly intentionally and jovially), he has many detractors quick to point out his material is heavy on random gags and relatively weak on story or character. Generally, he makes me laugh. And I sometimes think he doesn’t get enough credit for the cleverness of some gags, especially when he dabbles in musical comedy periodically.
But there are times when he’s just off. Sometimes his gags just aren’t very funny. Sometimes he stretches good jokes out for way too long until the humor is completely drained from it. Sometimes both happen at once, making an excruciating few seconds seem like hours. Fortunately, we don’t get any needlessly long knee-grabbing in A Million Ways to Die in the West, but unfortunately, most of the humor we do get is of the bad MacFarlane variety.
MacFarlane writes, directs, and stars in the picture as a meek sheep farmer in 1882 Arizona. After his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him for the local mustache retailer (Neil Patrick Harris), he tries desperately to win her back in a duel. But since he has no gunfighting skills, he enlists the help of an out-of-towner (Charlize Theron), and the two start to fall in love. Which is a problem, because Theron is unhappily married to the most fear gunslinger in the West (Liam Neeson). Yes, even with all the vulgarity and surprisingly bloody shootouts and other violence, the movie is a romantic comedy at its core.
MacFarlane is as affable as ever. Even when he’s at his most vulgar and profane, the man’s charming and hard to be disgusted with. And Neeson and Harris chew their scenes like pros. But the rest of the cast, including several of MacFarlane’s regular collaborators, aren’t much more than just there. It feels like one of those movies where the production is simply an excuse for everyone to hang out. This only seems to be an advantage in the case of Theron and MacFarlane’s dynamic; any romantic chemistry is out, but they at least know how to play off each other. But mostly, this results in a lot of phoning it in. Especially Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman, whose running gag—She’s a hooker, he’s a virgin, and they’re saving themselves for their wedding night! HAHAHA!—doesn’t get any funnier as it goes on.
All would have been forgiven if the film was funny, but the jokes are mostly misfires. The sexual, scatological, and otherwise offensive jokes aren’t very offensive at all. Everyone expects MacFarlane to be dirty. But here, instead of turning it into something clever, he’s content just to show it and stop there. Similarly, there are cameos in the picture, but instead of taking advantage of them, the movie doesn’t go any further than include them, as if it were enough to say, “Hey, remember this guy? So do we!” Other times things are too thought out and go on too long, whereas subtlety would have worked. And the jokes about how different and primitive the West was compared to today don’t translate to much laughter. I did laugh a few times, once or twice pretty hard, but I can’t tell if these parts were really good or just better than all the times I didn’t laugh. The old cliché about how the best parts are in the trailer is actually true this time, but by now we’ve seen them so much they’re not funny anymore.
The picture’s not absolutely horrible. It’s like a mediocre episode of Family Guy. But a mediocre episode only burns a half hour. The movie’s four times that length, which is a little too much to ask for what it has to offer.