By LYNN BARKER
Front Row Features
The laughs in Seth MacFarlane’s western romp “A Million Ways to Die in the West” range from “bottom” feeding pooping in the street jokes to fun tribute fare as when MacFarlane’s hapless sheep rancher character Albert happens upon a barn where (SPOILER ALERT) “Back to the Future III”’s Doc Brown is tinkering with his time-hopping DeLorean. Throw in a “Ted”-style wall-to-wall curse and gross-out fest and the gravitas acting of pros like Liam Neeson and you have a hit and miss comedy that might spottily appeal to your funny bone.
Story goes: In 1882 Arizona, after Albert (Seth MacFarlane) weasels out of a gunfight, his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) starts looking elsewhere for a more macho fella and finds one in moustache-twirling Neil Patrick Harris. Huh? Okay. Heartbroken Albert is ready to leave the 1880’s frontier for more upscale San Francisco when a mysterious and beautiful woman (Charlize Theron) rides into town and takes a shine to him. She teaches him to shoot, helps him discover his courage and love blossoms. When her fastest-gun-in-the-West outlaw husband (Neeson) tracks her down, Albert has to put his newfound skills and courage to the test.
It’s certainly not the first time that modern “trending” references have been wedged into an Old West setting. MacFarlane might have been shooting for an update to Mel Brooks’ classic “Blazing Saddles” but goes a bit too juvenile and bloody violent at times to match the feel of that more appealing film. There are a few softer, even romantic moments between Theron’s Anna and MacFarlane’s Albert that even things out. A delightful fantasy sequence, resulting from Albert’s drug intoxication at a Native American campfire, is a hoot complete with dancing, talking sheep.
Acting and casting are top notch. Although putting himself on screen more than necessary, writer/director/producer/actor MacFarlane is believable without creating a caricature of the shy, Harvey Milquetoast rancher who gives his sheep names and loves a woman he is obviously too good for. Theron dishes out both straight-faced reactions to the absurdities around her, heart-felt emotions and her own one-liners.
Neeson, using his Irish accent for a change, is straight-man stalwart as the outlaw threat to life, limb and happiness. And, can there be an odder couple than Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman? Although done to death, their sidebar story enactment of a sweet virgin and the saloon girl “Ho” he loves make them endearing. Neil Patrick Harris (king of the overdone poop joke in the film) gets to sing and dance a bit and his mustache twirling gets high marks.
Iconic, towering Monument Valley red cliffs, New Mexico’s Shiprock and some eye-popping western vistas by cinematographer Michael Barrett would seem to belong in a John Ford classic as should some Big Country-style music, but these do add to the enjoyment of the film.
With a near two-hour running time, the movie seems too long and padded for a comedy and MacFarlane might be too close to his material as the director for the needed trimming. If you can handle the fratboy humor, there are enough creative laughs in the movie delivered by some excellent actors to make for a popcorn-munching, mixed bag, highs and lows comedy. “A Million Ways to Die in the West” might be worth a trip to your local Cineplex.