A Million Ways to Die in the West opens with a classic western title sequence, complete with the giant swirly type font that covers sweeping golden hour shots of Monument Valley accompanied by a bombastic score where the string section is pushed to its dramatic limits. You couldn’t get more classic western than that if whipping sounds were added to the soundtrack and tumbleweeds rolled in the background.
The idea by director and Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane is obviously to remind us of both Hollywood’s golden era of westerns and the one classic that skewered their clichés perfectly, Mel Brooks’ comedy masterpiece Blazing Saddles. The opening credits set up an expectation of a smart parody that the rest of the film’s bloated two-hour running time can’t match.
The problem with the screenplay, written by MacFarlane and his two writing partners from Ted and Family Guy, is that it tries to combine an irreverent and absurdist parody with a Judd Apatow-style rom-com where a common schlub hooks up with one of the world’s most beautiful women simply because he’s a "nice guy". If MacFarlane’s overblown ego didn’t lead him to unwisely cast himself in the part, it would have Seth Rogen’s name written all over it.
MacFarlane and his expressionless beady eyes star as Albert, a hapless sheep farmer in the old west who gets dumped by his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) because he’s a coward and is terrible at his simple job. In fact, a running joke about how bad he is as a sheep farmer wears out its welcome very fast. This is to be expected after all, squeezing the life out of any joke through mindless repetition is the bread and butter of shows like Family Guy.
Anna (Charlize Theron), a mysterious woman married to the deadliest outlaw in the land (Liam Neeson) shows up in town and decides to help Albert win back his beau. From this point on, MacFarlane inexplicably adapts a predictable high school rom-com structure into a western parody. You know how it goes, the protagonist is so focused on getting his ungrateful girlfriend back, he doesn’t notice his one true love hiding in plain sight. If I told you an unlikely romance eventually blossoms between Anna and Albert, would you really be that surprised?
All of the story beats are predictable and the only saving grace in a plot that doesn’t really belong in a parody of classic westerns is the brazen chemistry between Charlize Theron and Seth MacFarlane. Since MacFarlane gives a pretty dull and lifeless performance, one can thank Oscar-winner Theron’s dedication to professionalism for the fact that the forced love story is even remotely watchable.
Most of the humor attempts to stand on a bevy of politically incorrect visual gags and an endless stream of poop and fart jokes. You know, like a feature-length version of Family Guy, which we already got two years ago with Ted. Enough of these jokes land to turn A Million Ways to Die in the West into an amusing distraction for two hours, but nothing even remotely close to a comedy classic like Blazing Saddles. A joke about an insanely racist shooting game gets big laughs and some of the absurd ways people can die in the old west (Which obviously inspired the title) are deliciously macabre. However, most of the jokes can’t get beyond faint chuckles.
A Million Ways to Die in the West could have been an instant parody classic like the recent Walk Hard and Hot Fuzz, but an overlong running time, an attempt at true emotion via the forced love story and MacFarlane’s insistence of casting himself in the lead gets in the way.