In writer-director Seth MacFarlane’s frequently sophomoric sophomore feature “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” the moments of absurdity land with a wonderfully weird grace, while the desperately vulgar gags about sex and scatology echo and crash as though they were being uttered in a middle-school boys’ restroom.
And lest I be accused of priggishness, let me go on the record as saying that, for me, the biggest laugh in MacFarlane’s “Ted” involved a hooker’s bowel movement.
“A Million Ways” sees the popular small-screen jokester behind “Family Guy” and “The Cleveland Show” making his on-screen debut as a leading man after supplying his voice to the title character of “Ted,” but it also shows that while MacFarlane is capable of the smart, unexpected punchline, he more frequently settles for lazy jokes about human functions. Sometimes they’re shocking, but they’re rarely as funny as the moments where people randomly fall victim to disease, immolation, or sudden bull-goring.
MacFarlane stars as Albert, a cowardly sheep rancher and fast-talking yellow-belly of the Bob Hope/Woody Allen school. After worming his way out of a gunfight, his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfriend) dumps him and immediately takes up with Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), the arrogant owner of the local mustache salon.
Not far from their town of Old Stump, nefarious outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson) and his gang plan a railroad heist, and he sends his put-upon wife Anna (Charlize Theron) to hide out in the town until things cool down. After Albert saves Anna’s life in a hilariously, violently over-the-top saloon brawl, the two bond over their shared loathing of life on the frontier.
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Anna acts like Albert’s new girlfriend to make Louise jealous, but when Albert winds up challenging Foy to a duel, sharp-shooting Anna has one week to turn Albert into a master gunfighter. Naturally, the two fall for each other, leading to problems when Clinch comes to town and Anna must reveal her identity to her craven new boyfriend.
If you grade a comedy by how frequently you chuckle, then “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is funny enough, with laughs being generated by old-west profanity, random cameos, and the fact that many of these 19th century characters speak with, like, you know, a contemporary patois.
Too often, unfortunately, MacFarlane and his co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild go for bits where the shock value is supposed to equal actual humor. There’s a running gag about Albert’s pal Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), who’s courting town prostitute Ruth (Sarah Silverman), with the joke being that a) he doesn’t mind that she consorts with dozens of other men every day, and b) Edward and Ruth aren’t having sex until marriage because they’re both Christian.
Both ideas are potentially hilarious, but MacFarlane doesn’t build on either one; he just repeats them over and over, with escalating detail and attention to bodily fluids. (Speaking of which, there’s also a moment in which Albert gets sheep urine delivered directly to the face, which is not only not all that funny, but also an unwelcome flashback to the opening moments of “Grown Ups 2,” where Adam Sandler gets similarly soiled by a deer.)
MacFarlane is clearly having a ball with the trappings of an old-school Western; cinematographer Michael Barrett fills the screen with big sky and Monument Valley vistas, while composer Joel McNeely serves up heaping helpings of Elmer Bernstein realness. (There’s even a shout-out to “The Terror of Tiny Town” during Albert’s psychedelic spirit journey. Don’t ask.)
“Ted” proved that Seth MacFarlane had more up his sleeve than the ADD humor of “Family Guy,” but “A Million Ways to Die in the West” sees him not entirely ready to be outrageous without pandering. If MacFarlane gets the gumption to go weird without stopping to juvenile poop humor — as opposed to witty, clever poop humor, which he’s certainly capable of — he may yet become a filmmaker to watch. For now, regrettably, he’s just sheepish.