I confess, I went into Seth MacFarlane’s new spoof, A Million Ways to Die in the West, with pretty low expectations. I loved Ted, which I also had doubts about, and I secretly hoped this offering would be a worthy heir to Blazing Saddles. But the trailer didn’t blow me away, and I was unsure of MacFarlane’s ability to actually, you know, act.
Thankfully, any doubts blew away like a proverbial tumbleweed, as AMWTDITW delivers exactly what you look for in this kind of project: laughs. Smart ones, dumb ones, odd ones, politcally incorrect ones, gross ones. As with most Family Guy episodes, all you need to do is not think too hard, saddle up and enjoy the ride.
The premise is pretty straightforward. It’s 1882 in the frontier town of Old Stump, Arizona, and MacFarlane is Albert Stark, a bumbling sheep farmer who loses his beloved girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) after, frankly, pussying out of a duel. Meanwhile, fearsome outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson) has sent his spirited, reluctant wife Anna (Charlize Theron) into town, planning to meet up with her in 12 days.
Unless you are offended by sex jokes, sheep piss and that Blazing Saddles staple, farts, you’ll mostly be laughing your ass off.
Albert, in a rare moment of courage, rescues Anna from a saloon brawl. She subsequently demonstrates uncanny shooting ability at the county fair and offers to help him prepare for his next duel, with Louise’s new beau, Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), the dandy, prosperous owner of the local moustachery. Yes, we said moustachery.
Will the two fall for each other? Will MacFarlane outshoot Foy? And what happens when Clinch comes to town? These are the things you’ll be wondering a half-hour into the movie. But unless you are offended by sex jokes, sheep piss and that Saddles staple, farts, you’ll mostly be laughing your ass off.
From musical numbers (“If You’ve Only Got a Moustache,” which actually dates back to 1864) to goofy cameos (Gilbert Gottfried, Bill Maher, Mr. Belding?) to silly set pieces (Albert ignoring advice not to “drink and horse,” then riding away from the saloon sideways), it’s all about the gags, really.
MacFarlane gets it right by keeping the plot fairly basic, allowing him to simply stack up the laughs as the story meanders along. For example, Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman aren’t exactly essential as a nice Christian couple. But the fact she works in a whorehouse doing filthy things with grimy old men, yet is waiting for marriage to sleep with him, makes for some crudely funny moments.
Tainted love? Silverman and Ribisi as a well-meaning, God-fearing couple, one of whom works in a whorehouse.
And while his acting—much like Jerry Seinfeld’s—is just sort of a physical manifestation of his writing style, MacFarlane really excels in bringing a modern sensibility to the Old West. His character is a self-aware sort who, unlike everyone else in town, realizes this is a pretty shitty place and time to exist: Women get married off as children, bigotry, violence and disease run rampant and, should you get hurt, there’s a high likelihood the doctor will prescribe a… woodpecker.
(Also, almost everyone is just scraping by, a point hilariously illustrated when, at the county fair, Harris’s mustachioed Foy produces a dollar bill. Townspeople’s jaws drop. A whole dollar? They’ve never seen so much money before.)
As the film’s title suggests, and as Albert elucidates to friends, there are lots of seemingly random, brutal ways to shuffle off this mortal coil: rattlesnakes, bullets, Indians, dysentery, raging bulls… even a giant block of ice can take a man’s life in the right, er, wrong circumstances.
Many of these foul ends take place on-screen, amusingly, as you slowly begin to grasp a seemingly paradoxical point: life’s too short to not have something to live for. But let’s not get caught up in some sort of high-fallutin’ “message.” The real takeaway here—and we’re sure Blazing Saddles director Mel Brooks would agree—is that life’s too short not to enjoy a good fart joke.