Seth MacFarlane’s raunchy, irreverent “A Million Ways to Die in the West” proves there are a million ways to laugh in the West.
MacFarlane, the creator of TV’s “Family Guy” and director and co-writer of “Ted,” and his gung-ho “Million Ways to Die” cast collectively kick the mythologizing conventions of classic Hollywood westerns in the groin.
Of course, a great western movie satire, Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles,” rode into movie theaters in 1974. Forty years later, MacFarlane delivers his funny poke at the old West according to Hollywood, heel-kicking musical numbers included.
“Million Ways to Die” begins with opening credits featuring majestic images of Monument Valley, a favorite filming location for John Ford and the director’s favorite star, John Wayne. The credits’ accompanying musical score play like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” meets Aaron Copland.
The year is 1882, the place is Arizona. MacFarlane directs “Million Ways to Die” and stars in the movie as disillusioned sheep farmer Albert Stark. After the community turns out to see Albert participate in a gunfight that everyone, including Albert, knows he’ll lose, he disappoints the whole town by backing down.
Albert’s refusal to act like a real man of the West forces his girlfriend, Louise, to break up with him. He’s a great guy, she lies, but she needs some time to work on herself.
Albert sinks into depression that keeps him at home in bed for days. His best friend, Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), a fellow non-macho man of the West, cares enough to ride out to the farm where Albert lives with his parents. Heeding Edward’s advice to get out of the house, Albert joins Edward at the local saloon for some drinks. The West, Albert laments, is nothing but a disgusting cesspool of despair.
In a combination of great and awful luck, the deadly barroom brawl that explodes in the saloon leads to Albert meeting Anna, a beautiful stranger. Turns out she’s real handy with a six-shooter. She likes Albert and volunteers to show the sheep-farming tenderfoot how to shoot up his rivals.
Charlize Theron, an Oscar-winning actress known for her serious roles, co-stars as Anna. Theron makes a great comic partner for MacFarlane, rolling with the movie’s rowdy punches and potentially fatal slapstick.
“A Million Ways to Die in the West” casts other normally serious thespians in comic roles, including Amanda Seyfried (“Les Misérables,” “Mamma Mia!”) as Albert’s ex-girlfriend, Louise, and Liam Neeson as the outlaw Clinch Leatherwood. Neeson, playing it straight just as he should, makes a menacing killer.
The movie’s deep cast also features Sarah Silverman, who smoothly translates her bawdy standup act to Ruth, a sex services worker, and Neil Patrick Harris as Albert’s effete, mustachioed rival, Foy.
Early in the summer movie season though it is, if someone happened to be a betting man, or woman, he or she would be wise to bet on MacFarlane’s evisceration of the western as being the summer’s funniest movie.