MAYBE IT'S BEST to think of Seth MacFarlane as the guy in class who copies your homework. He's shrewd enough to find a way to pass the class, but he hasn't done any original work all semester. Let's look at MacFarlane's career: His weirdly ripe singing voice is cribbed from Sinatra. His interminably enduring Family Guy is ripped off wholesale from The Simpsons, with a bit of All in the Family sprinkled in. And here's A Million Ways to Die in the West, ostensibly MacFarlane's version of Blazing Saddles, a comedy that injects the familiar western genre with bawdy toilet humor—and yes, there are poop jokes that make Blazing Saddles' farting campfire scene look like Oscar Wilde.
But Blazing Saddles tackled racism in 1970s America with smart, cruel incision, whereas A Million Ways to Die in the West is a shloppy, shlocky romantic comedy whose main source of humor is derived from hearing rustically garbed frontier folk say the F word. MacFarlane plays Albert, a sheep farmer who hates the podunk town he lives in, hates the countless lethal dangers of the American West, and hates that his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) has just dumped him for being a pussy. Now she's making time with the elegantly mustachioed Foy—played by Neil Patrick Harris, whose smarmy guffaw is one of the movie's marginally successful jokes.
Luckily for Albert, a smart, gorgeous, tough woman just rode into town. Anna (Charlize Theron) knows how to shoot a gun and how to down a plug of whiskey, and she takes glum, pathetic Albert under her wing and teaches him how to be a Man with a capital M. This mostly involves watching him shoot at stationary targets and looking devastatingly beautiful as he mopes for boring ol' Louise. Doesn't he know that he'd be better off with smart, gorgeous, tough Anna? The movie pretends that it would take Albert a while to figure this out.
Along the way, we're treated to a single joke repeated perhaps 40 times: that getting yourself killed in the Wild West is incredibly, hilariously easy. There are pratfalls and comically timed deaths—most of which you can see in the trailer—and the obligatory scene in which Albert goes on a spirit quest aided by some potent Native American pharmaceuticals. Will he take too much? Will the Native Americans laugh at the silly white man? Does the ghost of John Wayne shit on the prairie?
A wrinkle in Albert and Anna's romance comes in the form of her villainous, gun-slinging husband Clinch, played by Liam Neeson, who can't help but being warm and paternal even when he's supposed to be the bad guy. The idea of Moonface MacFarlane taking on a supreme badass like Neeson is actually pretty funny, but it's the one plot point this lazy, unimaginative comedy takes seriously. I was concerned that A Million Ways to Die in the West would ring yet another death knell for the decimated corpse of the American western. I needn't have worried. This movie is so far removed that genre's great masterworks—indeed, any filmic reality—that getting mad at it is like getting mad at your study partner for cheating on the open-book exam.