'A Million Ways to Die in the West' funny, but not a classic

The Fresno BeeMay 28, 2014 

Seth MacFarlane in "A Million Ways to Die in the West."

UNIVERSAL

If Seth MacFarlane ever corrects the bad habits he's developed as a director, he could become the Mel Brooks of the 21st century. He already has the same kind of quirky, weird and often outrageous sense of humor Brooks displayed in so many comic films. He even has similar pacing when it comes to setting up jokes.

The big difference, as so blatantly shown in "A Million Ways to Die in the West," is that MacFarlane never knows when to move on from a joke, often leaving it to die a slow death or go from smart to juvenile.

"A Million Ways to Die in the West" could have been the heir apparent to "Blazing Saddles," but it is saddled with too many problems to live up to that classic standard.

MacFarlane — who co-wrote and directed the movie — plays Albert, a sheep herding coward living in Old Stump, Ariz., in 1882. From the first notes of the epic rip-snorting opening theme, "Million Ways" tears into the conventions of Westerns with an uncensored bravado.

Albert's not the classic hero who embraces the mystique of the Old West; he prefers to see it as a place where everything around him is trying to kill him. His point is made when a trip to the county fair ends with three people dying in a photography mishap and another being gored to death by a rogue bull.

His best friend, Edward (played with a sweet naivete by Giovanni Ribisi), is in love with the town's most popular prostitute (Sarah Silverman). Albert's girlfriend — the local schoolmarm (Amanda Seyfried) — dumps him for the guy (Neil Patrick Harris) who runs the town's most successful mustache shop.

Albert finds a new love in Anna (Charlize Theron), the wife of the meanest gunslinger in the county (Liam Neeson).

MacFarlane brings together all the elements to show how the West was fun. Most of the time, the humor works, such as a joke about how big Seyfried's eyes are or a nod to the "Back to the Future" films. Just as he's done with his animated shows "Family Guy" and "American Dad," MacFarlane mixes funny jokes with pop culture references.

Theron's perfect with her infectious laugh and sharp-shooting ways, and Neeson gives the film a perfect dash of true grit.

The problem: MacFarlane never knows when to move on to the next joke. In a scene where the humor comes from a horrible battle with diarrhea, he continues the joke for several minutes, taking it past funny to annoying. He showed more constraint in the film "Ted," but he brought back the bad habit in this work.

Such lack of comedy control gets in the way of what's generally a funny movie. The lack of constraint means that while "A Million Ways to Die in the West" is a rootin' and lots of tootin' good time, it doesn't have the comic refinement that put it among classic comedies from directors like Brooks.

Movie review

"A Million Ways to Die in the West," rated R for language, gross humor, nudity, sexual situations. Stars Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman, Liam Neeson. Directed by Seth MacFarlane. Running time: 116 minutes. Grade: B-

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TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, rbentley@fresnobee.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at www.fresnobeehive.com.

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