The film has a few laughs; let's make that perfectly clear. And anyone—critic or otherwise—who says that A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST is trying to be BLAZING SADDLES wasn't paying attention when they watched either. If anything, the new film from director and star Seth MacFarlane (who also directed the very funny TED) could probably have benefitted from being a little more like the Mel Brooks film, considered by many to be one of the funniest films ever made. Brooks actually loved Westerns and understood what made them tick beyond just the lovely desert photography.
MacFarlane never gets beyond the premise set forth in his title: the "American West" (as it's often referred to) is a place designed to kill people via other people, wild animals, terrible doctors or random acts of death. That alone is a workable premise, except the MacFarlane is so excited about showing us his Actor Face after years of voice work on "Family Guy," "American Dad," HELLBOY 2 and TED, that he makes that the centerpiece of the film and not a clear understanding about what makes the West so unique and strange.
MacFarlane plays a sheep farmer named Albert, who has a knack for talking his way out of dangerous situations rather than get involved in a fist or gun fight. After one such evasion, his long-time girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) starts to see him as not enough of man, so she leaves him and soon hooks up with a far manlier (you can tell because he has a mustache and is played by Neil Patrick Harris) and richer Foy. Dismayed, Albert loses himself in work until a stranger rides into town in the guise of the lovely Anna (Charlize Theron), who seems to be handy with a gun, making her tougher than Albert as well. What no one in town knows is that Anna is actually married to the dreaded outlaw Clinch (Liam Neeson), who will arrive in town a couple weeks after Anna, and in that time period Anna teaches Albert how to shoot... and how to care about someone for the right reasons. She's also not above helping Albert make Louise a little jealous at the town fair.
While MacFarlane and crew aren't exactly dropping '80s references in their dialogue, their modern speak and sensibilities underscore the fact that this story could have taken place anytime, anywhere with just a few tweaks. The Average Joe trading one hot girlfriend for another is a storyline as old as the hills of Monument Valley. And then there are the elements which just plain don't work: MacFarlane saying "Holy shit!" as his go-to phrase anytime something even remotely surprising happens; not one but two drug-trip sequences, only one of which has any real payoff; or the running gag about Albert's best friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and his whore girlfriend (Sarah Silverman) saving themselves for marriage while she has sex with roughly 15 guys per day. It's funny maybe the first two times.
But like I said at the beginning, the film has some funny moments, depending on what you find funny. I thought the sequence in which NPH has violent diarrhea in a guy's hat really damn funny, while the repetitive jokes about a sheep on Albert's roof or a string of unexpected cameos just fall flat and lie dead collecting flies. Points to Theron for not only committing herself to the material but also for doing a better job than anyone even remotely connected to A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST at selling it and, in some cases, making it funnier than it was likely written.
Weirdly enough, the thought that kept popping into my head while watching A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST was that MacFarlane hadn't taken the classic Western and spoofed it; he's taken the fix-him/her-up romantic comedy formula (i.e., EMMA, CLUELESS) and turned it into a Western. Again, not the worst idea I've heard/seen all week, but certainly a strange workaround to get laughs. Whatever he's doing, it lands on the desert floor with a resounding "Thwap!"