There’s a running gag in “A Million Ways to Die in the West” that nobody has ever smiled in a posed photograph. An 1880s camera is so slow that anyone who could grin that long would have to be insane.
For lengthy stretches, viewers can’t help but laugh or smile at Seth MacFarlane’s amusing comedy-Western. And some of the jokes are so patently offensive that you may need to plead insanity.
MacFarlane (“Ted” and TV’s “Family Guy”) crafts the first really obnoxious comedy set in the Old West since Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles.” Doubtful it will have the same cultural staying power as that 1974 classic, but it’s wading in the same spittoon.
“Some people are born into the wrong time and place,” a narrator intones as we’re introduced to Albert (MacFarlane). The fidgety sheep farmer is not the bravest of men, and his snarky attitude coupled with a relentless pottymouth lands him in constant trouble.
He’s not the only fearful one. As he explains to virginal friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), the “depressing awfulness of the Old West” is compounded by the sheer danger around every corner. His Arizona town of Old Stump can’t even host a county fair without a succession of grisly deaths. It’s just the nature of the place.
Things pick up for Albert with the arrival of Anna (Charlize Theron). The confident blonde from Kansas City (“Missouri,” she stresses) is also cagily excellent at handling a pistol. This comes in handy when she agrees to help Albert prepare for a duel against the mustachioed snob (Neil Patrick Harris) who stole his ex-girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried).
During these mentoring sessions, Albert and Anna form a connection over their mutual hate of things, which they agree is “so much deeper than mutual love.” What she fails to mention is she’s actually the wife of Clinch (Liam Neeson), the most feared gunfighter in the West.
With its sweeping vistas of Monument Valley and a jaunty throwback score, the movie at least feels like a real Western. Beyond that, it plays like an episodic free-for-all with a high hits-to-duds joke ratio.
What helps the picture work — and makes some of the unnecessarily graphic bits easier to forgive — is the interaction between the two leads. On paper the classy Oscar winner and the weaselly Emmy winner seem like a mismatched duo. On-screen they captivate.
Their instant camaraderie even makes sense within the limited confines of the plot. He’s still in love with his former sweetheart; she’s secretly married. The pair don’t realize until deep in the story that they’re legitimately interested in each other. The first half is almost structured like a buddy flick, even though we know romance is inevitable.
That same enchantment can’t be found in the relationship between Ribisi’s character and his saloon whore girlfriend (Sarah Silverman). The joke is that they’re both Christians, so they’ve decided to put off sex until marriage. It’s really just an excuse for edgy comedian Silverman to talk dirty — and she’s never needed an excuse before.
This B-story adds to the overall unevenness of “Million Ways.” For every clever exchange — as when Albert and Anna continue a revealing conversation, even though an encroaching diamondback compels them to keep absolutely still — there’s a random monologue that feels like a rehearsal. Or it’s just another way to push the borders of the film’s R-rating.
MacFarlane (who shares screenplay credit with “Family Guy” pals Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild) recognizes that his acting might not carry a film without serious support. Between Theron, the menacing Neeson and a hysterically pompous Harris, he ensures that “dying” in the comedic sense will not be one of the million ways to die in the West.
‘A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST’
Rated R | Time: 1:56