By NATHAN LERNER
Traditional westerns pitted virtuous heroes against dastardly villains. Even if you were a tad obtuse, you could distinguish the good guys from the bad guys by the color of their hats.
More recently, revisionist westerns, like “Unforgiven,” “Open Range” and “Appaloosa” offered a more iconographically nuanced depiction of the 19th century American frontier. The idealized version of “True Grit” in the original Henry Hathaway/John Wayne provides a stark contrast with the much darker Coen Brothers/Jeff Bridges remake of the same source novel.
With Seth McFarlane (TV’s “Family Guy,” and the movie “Ted”) as writer, producer, director and star, “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” invited high expectations. His attempted deconstruction of the western genre uses humor, superimposing a post-modernist sensibility onto this bygone era.
Set in Arizona Territory circa 1882, the film depicts life in the Old West as a bleak experience. Death — be it at the hands of outlaws, renegade native Americans, wild animals, famine, or poor medical care — lurked around every corner. Does this cesspool of despair sound like the setting for a comedy?
As the film opens, residents of Old Stump line Main Street, eager to witness a pending gunfight between protagonist, Albert (McFarlane) and an enraged cattle rancher. Due to Albert’s ineptitude as a shepherd, his flock has wandered onto the neighbor’s land and overgrazed it. In the Old West, ongoing disputes over grazing and water rights often escalated into armed battles. “Shane,” inspired by the Johnson County Range Wars in Wyoming, best captured this historical reality.
However, Albert tries to avoid a potentially lethal gunfight. He acknowledges culpability and offers financial compensation to the rancher. As a consequence of his rational approach, townsfolk brand Albert as a coward.
Immediately thereafter, Albert’s girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him and begins consorting with Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). Foy is the owner of the town’s moustachery, where he sells grooming products for the hirsute.
Albert has only one friend, Edward (Giovanni Ribisi). Whenever a bar brawl erupts, the two craven wimps avoid it by staging a carefully orchestrated faux fight. In it, they exchange phantom punches. Edward is affianced to Ruth (Sarah Silverman), a prostitute, who services as many as 15 men a day. Since Edward and Ruth are both devout Christians, they have avoided premarital sex.
The most dangerous man in the territory is the notorious outlaw, Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson). He is planning to execute a major robbery. In the interim, Clinch dispatches his wife, Anna (Charlize Theron), to wait for him in Old Stump. After years of being married to a cold-blooded killer, how will Anna react to a basically decent, albeit timorous guy, like Albert?
There is no shortage of gags in this film. Alas, few of them are funny. There are a disconcerting number of jokes using feces and flatus as subject matter. One particularly revolting vignette involves Neil Patrick Harris, stricken with diarrhea, relieving himself into hats, ripped off the heads of bystanders. Other lame attempts at humor involve sexual peccadilloes. These jokes are less clever than gratuitously raunchy. The racial jokes include a shooting gallery at the annual town fair, titled Runaway Slave.
Filmed in Monument Valley, Utah, the stunning cinematography by Michael Barrett consciously evokes the classic westerns of John Ford, who used the same locale. The rousing score by Joel McNeely would also be an apt fit for a traditional western. Both are ill-considered mismatches for this broad comedy.
The film contains one stellar segment. In it, Albert is captured by Cochise (Wes Studi) and his band of Apaches. They are poised to burn Albert at the stake. However, Albert displays his fluency in the Apache language. Impressed, Cochise invites him to participate in a tribal ritual. Albert imbibes a powerful peyote-based potion. The resulting hallucination is wildly imaginative and vastly superior to the balance of the film.
Despite a few inspired moments, “A Million Ways to Die in the West” ends up mired in mediocrity. The film has lofty aspirations to be the “Blazing Saddles” of this generation. Instead, it turns out to be no more memorable than “City Slickers.”
** ½ R (for for strong crude and sexual content, language throughout, some violence and drug material) 116 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.