Seth MacFarlane doesn’t make it easy to like him. His smug, smarty-pants shtick seems to be built on the foundation of him being a bit of a prick. And the Family Guy and Ted creator’s one-and-done gig hosting the Oscars a couple of years back?where he whipped up a tizzy of faux outrage with his now-infamous ”We Saw Your Boobs” number?didn’t exactly help matters. Love him or hate him, though (or simply love to hate him), his naughty-boy sagebrush send-up, A Million Ways to Die in the West, is actually pretty hilarious.
From his sideline obsession with Rat Pack swizzle-stick showmanship to his undeniably clever piggybacking on the small-screen legacy of The Simpsons and South Park, MacFarlane is clearly a guy who isn’t afraid to borrow from his betters. And his new film is such an unapologetic homage to 1974’s Blazing Saddles that Mel Brooks probably deserves to get a cut of the box-office receipts. Still, MacFarlane manages to make the film his own, goosing Brooks’ original formula with hard-R raunchiness and post-modern mischief.
While MacFarlane kept himself off-screen in Ted (he merely provided the profane voice of Mark Wahlberg’s fuzzy pal), here he puts himself front and center as Albert Stark?a cowardly and inept sheep farmer in the backwater town of Old Stump, Arizona, circa 1882. At the outset of the film, Albert is cowering at ten paces, face-to-face with a grisly gunslinger, nervously trying to weasel his way out of a duel. His stammering excuses to back out quickly become a sort of manic stand-up routine that encapsulates the theme of the movie, riffing on all the ways that the Old West, contrary to Hollywood legend, is actually a horrible place: the people are stupid yokels, the height of medicine is treating wounds with the pecking beaks of blue jays, and if the Indians don’t kill you, the rattlesnakes on the way to the nearest outhouse will. He’s like Louis CK in chaps.
Ashamed by Albert’s lily-livered lack of courage, his schoolmarm girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him for Foy, the dandy proprietor of the local mustache shop, played with literal whisker-twirling glee by Neil Patrick Harris. Explaining why he’s more fit to woo her than Albert is, he says, ”I can give her wrapped candies.” Albert is encouraged to try and win Louise back by his sexually frustrated, dim-bulb best friend (Giovanni Ribisi), whose prostitute girlfriend (Sarah Silverman with a bottomless grab bag of blow-job one-liners and bodily fluid gags) withholds sex while doing unprintable acts in her day job. But Albert is no match for the deep pockets, bad puns, and luxurious waxed handlebar of Foy.
Meanwhile, the area’s most wanted desperado, Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson) is on the run from the law, who while hiding out, sends his sharp-shooting beauty of a wife, Anna, (Charlize Theron) into town to lay low. Which is fine by her. She hates the scoundrel and only married him because she was nine at the time and afraid of becoming a spinster. Needless to say, Anna and the harmless, good-hearted Albert bond over how dreadful and absurd range life is. Eventually she hatches a scheme for them to pose as an item to make Louise jealous while she teaches him how to shoot a gun and grow a pair.
MacFarlane, who wrote the script with Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, keeps the gags flying like hot lead out of a Colt .45. And for every three that don’t land, one or two hit the bullseye. There are probably a few too many lazy fart and diarrhea jokes for some, but 14-year-old boys will love it. And while the self-satisfied MacFarlane may give himself a little too much credit and face time as a leading man (I couldn’t help thinking he looks like Peter Brady, and his knack for laughing at his own gags is slightly grating), Theron displays a stunning set of razor-sharp comedic chops that she’s rarely been given the chance to show off. It suits her as well as the bustle gown she wears to the local hoedown. ”Why are the Indians so mad?” she asks at one point. ”We’re basically splitting the country 50/50 with them!”
I don’t know if A Million Ways to Die in the West will turn any of the MacFarlane haters into fans. But for those of us who have remained on the fence until now, his raunchy, rat-a-tat parody is proof that beneath all of the bratty immaturity lays the head and heart of an outrageous quick-draw satirist. B