Seth MacFarlane is best known for peppering his material with naughty jokes and edgy asides, but at his heart he’s an old-fashioned genre aficionado. Just look at the abundance of musical numbers on “Family Guy” or the buddy comedy heart of “Ted.”
From the big, reddish-orange credits set against empty western vistas to the sweeping shots of sheep grazing and horses galloping, MacFarlane’s “A Million Days to Die in the West” reverently pays tribute to the classic western as it simultaneously sends it up with a bunch of innocuous poop jokes and the repeated observation that there sure were a lot of ways to die on the frontier.
MacFarlane is one of the few male comic creative talents to have honed a style that entirely stands against the Judd Apatow school of realism. He has a deep understanding of classical Hollywood tropes and is thereby well-equipped to fill the Mel Brooks parody role in the 21st century. We need him making movies like this one, in other words, even if it isn’t actually all that great.
The director/co-writer also stars here as Albert, an Arizona farmer in 1882 who really, really shouldn’t be an Arizona farmer in 1882. Whereas the Wild West demands men of fortitude and strength, men who would never shy away from a gunfight, Albert is a quick-witted coward. He’s more Woody Allen than John Wayne, in other words.
Clearly, he’s got to toughen up. Events are set in motion that will do just that when a beautiful gunslinger (Charlize Theron) arrives in town.
The movie offers decent escapist entertainment throughout and occasionally more than that. The central conceit lends itself to some humorous set-ups and the running gag, in which extras are killed in outlandish ways (a camera bursts into flames, a block of ice crushes a skull), is a pretty good one. MacFarlane never steps too far away from his pop cultural obsessions and the movie is sprinkled with cameos that range from the unlikely to the obvious. Also, Giovanni Ribisi stands out as Albert’s virginal best friend.
It’s just not as fresh or clever as it thinks it is. MacFarlane relies too heavily on his old standbys, including bodily function humor and a full-on musical number, to really get to the heart of this genre and its masculine ideals. The picture runs nearly two hours, far too long for an endeavor in which the story serves as little more than a conduit for broad slapstick. “A Million Ways to Die in the West” isn’t “Blazing Saddles,” in other words, and it’s not funny enough to be considered an unqualified success. But I’m sure glad it exists.
Directed by Seth MacFarlane
Starring Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman, Liam Neeson