The plot summation for Seth MacFarlane’s comedy Western, A Million Ways to Die in the West, goes something like this: A cowardly rancher is forced into a showdown with murderous outlaw after he falls for the villain’s wife. The description isn’t inaccurate but it’s misleading.
The real function of the movie isn’t to present the dramatic evolution of an unlikely gunslinger. It’s to provide writer-director MacFarlane, who also stars, an opportunity to perform a two-hour stand-up bit about just how badly life on the American frontier in the late 19th century suuuuuuuucked.
He plays a character named Albert Stark, a man not so much inept as wholly out of place and time. Albert is terrible at all aspects of frontier life due, not to some flaw of character, but because he is . . . well, because he’s actually Seth MacFarlane, a man born in and accustomed to all he comforts of the 20th century (and beyond). If any of us were suddenly transported to the harsh landscape of frontier Arizona in 1880-whatever, we’d suck at everything, too. And if we were professional comedians, we’d probably bitch about it cleverly, as well.
MacFarlane makes no attempts to present a believable character. Instead he throws Albert into uncomfortable (and often unsanitary) situations and has him crack wise from the perspective of a modern man. He is joined, eventually, in his commentary by the aforementioned outlaw bride, Anna (Charlize Theron), who is, if anything, by dint of her marital predicament, even more aware of just how poor a life it is in the Old West. These two are drawn together not so much by love but, as they state explicitly, by their deep mutual hatred of the circumstances of their lives.
The weird thing is, this thin conceit works surprisingly well. A Million Ways to Die in the West is really pretty funny. I have never found Seth MacFarlane so little annoying. I don’t like his animated TV shows at all, and there’s something about his face that just . . . ugh. I don’t know what it is. I just want to punch him, for some reason. But that wore off over the course of the movie, and I actually began to enjoy his character’s rants. And the supporting players were extremely well chosen.
Theron is an underused comic actor. (Check out her performance in Young Adult, by the way.) And Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman both find the perfect combination of blithering optimism and exhausted resignation for the circumstances. Neil Patrick Harris is an enjoyable foppish antagonist, and Liam Neeson is, as ever, steely and frightening as the real bad guy.
The story is entirely predictable but, as it’s largely irrelevant, that’s no complaint. The real point and pleasure of the movie is the joy in the performances of well-cast comedians doing what they do best: bitching vulgarly.