First, before we go any further, let's take “Blazing Saddles” out of this conversation, okay? It's not even worth bringing it in. “Blazing Saddles” is one of the finest comedies ever made. “A Million Ways To Die In The West” belongs in the same conversation as movies like “The Villain” or “Rustler's Rhapsody,” a conversation about innocuous and uneven Western comedies. That's a fair conversation. That's a weight class where you can make comparisons and contrasts and there's some sort of common ground. But “Blazing Saddles”? Don't be silly.
“Ted” was a surprise to many people who bet against the idea of Seth MacFarlane making the jump to a successful big-screen movie. I think he set himself a much more difficult task this time out, but it seems like it was inevitable. After all, he is one of the primary performers on “Family Guy” and he's the voice of “Ted” and why wouldn't he eventually star in one of his films? After all, he's the co-writer, co-producer, and director of the movie. This is as much his voice as a film can be, so starring in it is the next logical step, right?
The best thing I can say about the film is that he's not doing what I expected, which was a “Family Guy” style lurch from parody to parody, doing a sort of greatest hits of every Western MacFarlane's ever seen. There are probably three or four specific references to other films in this movie, and even then, they're either very weird or they're thrown away in a casual way, and it's fine. Instead, this is a story played fairly straight, and the sense of humor comes more from Albert (MacFarlane) observing just how miserable life in the West is, throwing a modern attitude into a historical setting.
There are many things in the film that actually made me laugh, and they are almost entirely rooted in the details of how real life in the Old West must have been. There's a running gag about how no one smiles in photographs that made me laugh each and every time they came back to it. The film's title comes from Albert's world view, and the scene where he explains that is probably the biggest sustained laugh in the film.
And the biggest frustration for me out of the entire thing is that Charlize Theron gives the single most appealing and vulnerable performance I've ever seen from her. She is human scale in this movie, when filmmakers seem determined to cast her as tough or unknowable or intimidating. I get why, of course. She's very imposing, and there's a cutting intelligence that she couldn't disguise if she tried, and so filmmakers cast her as the evil queen or the icy bad guy. But her performance here reminds me of the work done by Olivia Wilde in “Drinking Buddies,” where you suddenly get a glimpse of the best side of someone, where they finally get a role where they can show this part of themselves that snaps them into a very different kind of focus. There's a big stretch in the film where she's trying to help Albert prepare for a gunfight, and she is so enormously loose and funny and appealing that it's sort of a shock. In one very funny scene, she convinces Albert to share a pot cookie with her, and it may be the single most fetching depiction of a shared drug experience since Milla Jovovich rolling joints for her boyfriend in “Dazed and Confused.” She is hilarious, and if the entire relationship between Anna, her character, and Albert were played with this same sort of casual and real back and forth, the film might actually work as a whole.
The problem is that the film wants to create this arch and sort of heightened world where you can have a random musical number or you can break the laws of physics for a gag or where Albert can take some truly massive physical cartoon punishment and shake it off, but then it goes for something that's so real and honest that it feels like a different film. I think a lot of that is Theron herself. She's so good at communicating so much with so little that I think she pulls the gravity of the film all out of whack. MacFarlane's not terrible as Albert, but there's not a scene in the film where it feels like he's really that guy and not just Seth MacFarlane, acutely aware that he is acting in a movie. He is almost too glib about the entire thing. When he stretches to try and sell some of the film's bigger dramatic beats, it doesn't ring true because he's playing the rest of it so light. After that great scene with the pot cookie, there's a later peyote trip that goes on for about 45 minutes (or maybe it just feels that way) and that feels like overkill on a surprisingly expansive budget.
Look, he hired a good cinematographer, and they spend a lot of time showing you that they shot this thing on some gorgeous locations, and this is the prettiest film Michael Barrett has shot so far. It feels like Joel McNeely went for broke with the score, writing a big sweeping Western score that feels like he's afraid he'll never get this shot again. MacFarlane's collaborators, across the board, are up for what he's trying to do, and they raise his game in every way. The problem is that coming off of a hit like “Ted,” no one was in much of a position to say no to MacFarlane, and so this film feels indulgent in a way that one didn't. The size of it is impressive at times, but when I see six minutes worth of helicopter shots of Monument Valley, I'm thinking about how much that cost and how there's not a single bit of it that actually adds anything to the stories or the characters or even the humor. It's just basically so you know that this is a real movie. Same thing with the stunt work and the sweeping vistas and the town they built… it's all as good as you could ask of a studio film, and in the end, it makes the film feel big, but it doesn't make it any funnier.
Some of the cast works. Neil Patrick Harris could squeeze belly laughs out of reading a math textbook on camera at this point. Giovanni Ribisi finds some grace notes to play in his role as a guy who is saving himself for marriage to the hard-working prostitute Ruth (Sarah Silverman), and while Silverman's game for the joke, the writing is too juvenile to really be hilarious. You can see how it might be funny, but it really doesn't work in execution. Liam Neeson has basically nothing to do as the bad guy in the film, and Amanda Seyfriend seems similarly stranded in an underwritten part.
I think the biggest surprise here is just how long a stretch MacFarlane seems willing to allow without even trying for a joke. I am so used to that desperate sort of bombardment that many studio comedies seem to think is the only possible pace that when you see a film like this were a good five or ten minutes can go by without anyone even trying for a set-up or a punchline, it's interesting. If the film was stronger overall, it would feel like a brave choice. Instead, it ends up making it feel like a film that is just too flabby. I feel bad saying that, because some of my favorite parts are the small things that would probably get cut first, but I think there's at least one act too many at the end of things. By the time the movie gets where it's going, there's only one way it could end, and he seems to take the longest possible route to get there. The idea that I think actually is interesting is that sometimes it takes a person outside of your relationship to allow you the proper perspective on just how broken something actually is, and in the film's best moments, it is about how Albert and Anna are both coming out of really difficult and damaged situations and how amazing it is when they both recognize that in one another. That's a fairly complex and adult idea for a mainstream comedy to tackle, so I guess it just feels like a waste when that movie suddenly takes a break for a five minute square dance about having a moustache.
“A Million Ways To Die In The West” certainly has merits, and in some ways, it is a step forward for MacFarlane, but it is also deeply undisciplined, and it undercuts its own best instincts in ways I find almost unbearably frustrating. By this point, you probably know if he makes you laugh or not. This will not be the film that changes anyone's mind in either direction.
“A Million Ways To Die In The West” opens Friday in theaters everywhere.