By Michael Arbeiter, Hollywood Staff
If you have any pre-existing familiarity with Seth MacFarlane, you'll find yourself utterly baffled after spending no more than 10 minutes withA Million Ways to Die in the West. Half that time will be spent on the opening titles, a shockingly earnest homage to Western classics (oh, that's nice! ... but where are the jokes?), a piece on sheep farmer MacFarlane's stammering break-up with his turned-off ladyfriend Amanda Seyfried (relatable! ... but where are the jokes?), and one scene on Liam Neeson's snarling bandit shooting an old prospector dead over a chunk of gold (menacing! ... but where are the jokes?). When the allotted time is up, you'll be angling to challenge the marketing behind MacFarlane's film, as well as the reputation of the man on which A Million Ways to Die was sold. It's hardly a comedy at all, and he, at least in this case, not a comedian.
MacFarlane's movie toggles between scenes devoid of humorous intent altogether and those that simply miss the mark (and hard) in the joke department. Independently, these elements are painful; together, they're fatal. The material paving the agonizingly naturalistic romantic incline involving MacFarlane and Charlize Theron would feel more at home on the cutting room floor of a mumblecore reject than in the sort of comedy that banks on the gastrointestinal system for its principal supply of laughter.
The common factor here is a lack of effort. Instead of opting for creativity, writer/director MacFarlane plays cheap, opening the film with a fellatio gag, topping it with human flatulence (and its ugly cousin) and livestock urination, and peppering in the occasional pop culture reference. Ah, so that's where MacFarlane has been hiding! you might say. After all, Family Guy is full of pop culture gags, spoofs, and send-ups. But A Million Ways holds true to its maxim of expending absolutely no energy or imagination, vying for unabashed theft of catchphrases (Neil Patrick Harris is the purveyor of the most heinous example) without so much as a wink at, comment about, or spin on the source material in question.
Perhaps the biggest shame is seeing deft comic actors like Harris, Neeson, and Sarah Silverman squandered in scenes that give them no opportunity to be funny. Neeson doesn't get a single joke to play with, Harris (a master of facial contortion) manages a few chuckles despite C- material. One-note jokes like Silverman and Giovanni Ribisi - a lovestruck prostitute and her virgin boyfriend - or Christopher Hagen as MacFarlane's cranky dad are the most active sources of comedy that Ways has to offer. But bald-faced jokes about sex and s**t can only occupy so much of this thing's diabolical 116-minute runtime.
Occasionally, MacFarlane's comic tenacity - the type you might never have cared for but at least knew to be an existent force - does rear its reluctant head. Townspeople clamoring over a dollar, MacFarlane and Ribisi exhibiting their own take on the saloon brawl, and an admittedly fun song about the glories of having a mustache. If this kind of imagination - or, hell, even attitude - could have been exercised over the other 85 percent of AMW, we might have had something recognizable as comedy. But instead, we have mostly dead air and sheep dicks.