It's not as hot as Mel Brooks' classic "Blazing Saddles."
Yet, Seth MacFarlane's loopy, self-conscious, kitchen-sink comedy "A Million Ways to Die in the West" guns down its fair share of genre clichés while outgrossing Brooks' once shocking beans-at-the-campfire scene when it comes to bathroom humor.
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"A Million Ways to Die in the West"★ ★ ★
Starring: Seth MacFarlane, Liam Neeson, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman
Directed by: Seth MacFarlane
Other: A Universal Pictures release. Rated R for drug use, language, sexual situations and violence. 116 minutes
If you've seen MacFarlane's hard R-rated comedy "Ted" or remember his controversial Oscar ode to actresses baring their chests in movies, you know what to expect here: tasteless, heavy-handed, off-color humor, some of it strident and dumb, some of it hilariously sidesplitting.
If one joke falls flat, 999,999 more of them riddled with pratfalls, puns and sudden death will try to kill you with laughter.
The epic opening scenes in "A Million Ways to Die in the West" firmly establish the conventions director/co-writer/producer/star MacFarlane spends the next 114 minutes mocking to death.
The breathtaking panoramic vistas of Monument Valley hearken back to vintage John Ford westerns that introduced the world to this iconic location, now the symbol of Hollywood's old west.
Composer Joel McNeely complements the visuals with a rousing, full-bore blast of classic western music, part Alfred Newman's "How the West Was Won," part Elmer Bernstein's "The Magnificent Seven," with a touch of Aaron Copland.
"A Million Ways to Die" is set during 1882 in the tiny town of Old Stump, Arizona, a historically detailed, authentic western community that took three and a half months for filmmakers to construct.
Into this realistic setting comes MacFarlane's Albert Stark, clearly a man of 21st century sensibilities trapped in the body of a 19th-century sheep farmer. He hates the west with its wild animals, diseases, violence, Indian attacks and horse poop dropped everywhere.
He adores his devoted girlfriend, the lovely Louise (Amanda Seyfried), but not for long. She decides the super-nice Albert isn't much of a catch. She dumps him for the well-to-do proprietor of the local Mustache Shoppe, a randy dandy dude named Foy (the perfectly cast Neil Patrick Harris on smarm overload).
The plot gets up to full gallop after the villainous gunfighter Clinch (Liam Neeson, who has a very particular set of skills) dispatches his hot and unhappy wife Anna (Charlize Theron) to wait for him in Old Stump while he and his gang tend to criminal matters elsewhere.
In Old Stump, Anna takes pity on the pining Albert, instantly bolstering her new friend's saggy self-esteem. More important, she teaches the bumbling sheep herder how to shoot a six-gun so he can defend himself in an upcoming grudge duel against Foy, an expert marksman.
Meanwhile, in what passes for an overextended romantic subplot, Albert's wimpy best pal Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) pursues his true love Ruth (Sarah Silverman), a congenial hooker at the local tavern. He would like to take their relationship to a more intimate level, but she doesn't believe in premarital sex. She explains, "We're Christians!"
"A Million Ways to Die" could use at least one more run through an editing program to tighten up its overly long 116 minutes, excise the lesser jokes and abbreviate Edward and Ruth's highly redundant relationship. (I blame the too-many hats worn by MacFarlane, who lacked a strong set of checks and balances when it came to artistic decisions.)
The casting of Theron as the film's independent woman is sheer genius. She plays Anna absolutely straight, as if auditioning for a reboot of "Little House on the Prairie."
Like the authentic setting, Theron's seriousness grounds "Million Ways to Die," allowing us to give a pass to MacFarlane when he awkwardly emulates Kid Shelleen's drunken horse rider from "Cat Ballou" (Lee Marvin did it better), and tries to achieve Brooksian racial commentary with dubious setups. (A carnival shooting gallery has targets identified as "runaway slaves"? Really?)
MacFarlane gets away with comic murder in "A Million Ways to Die," and he does it by being a little bit naughty and a little bit raunchy.
But most of all, by being adorably cute. In a bad boy sort of way.