There are enough laughs scattered throughout A Million Ways to Die in the West that while you’re watching it, the movie seems like a passable comedy. By the time you get home, though, you can barely remember the jokes. The things that stay with you are the dull, boilerplate love story, the laziest performance of Liam Neeson’s career as a murderous gunslinger and the distracting amount of makeup Seth MacFarlane sports in the film. His face looks like it has been Photoshopped and smoothed over, as if he were posing for a GQ cover, even though he’s playing a sheep farmer in the dusty Old West.
His unnatural appearance fits right in with the rest of this star-studded vanity project, a cheap-looking western (notice how small all the sets are) with a contemporary sensibility that feels like a bone Universal Pictures gave the writer-director as a reward for the success of Ted, which grossed half a billion dollars in 2012. MacFarlane provided the voice of the foul-mouthed teddy bear in that movie, the way he voices characters on Family Guy and American Dad! But as an-screen presence, MacFarlane recalls that old saying “He has a face for radio.” He’s much funnier when he’s just heard, not so much when you have to watch him, too.
In A Million Ways to Die in the West, MacFarlane surrounds himself with a stable of great comedians, which doesn’t do him any favors. Everyone is stuck with the same lame material — a meek sheep farmer learns to find the courage to win over the girl of his dreams — but performers such as Sarah Silverman (playing a hooker) and Neil Patrick Harris (a moustache-shop owner) are able to squeeze some juice out of this lumpy rock, even when they’re saddled with old gags, one stolen outright from There’s Something About Mary, another that old classic stand-by — the sudden bout of explosive diarrhea, complete with an extreme close-up of the end result.
Other actors, such as Charlize Theron as the beautiful sharpshooter who takes an inexplicable interest in MacFarlane, or Amanda Seyfried as his ex-girlfriend, are simply miscast. Theron tries but doesn’t get a single laugh in the entire film: She’s only good at playing the tearful, for-real subplot of the movie (yes, here is another silly comedy that insists on inserting unconvincing heart and emotion, like the worst Adam Sandler pictures, when you’d much rather be laughing).
Seyfried, whose scant screen time suggests heavy edits (but not enough; the movie runs a punishing 116 minutes), is here primarily so other characters can make fun of her big eyes. There are several surprise cameos, some of them pointless, others ingenious (the truly great one, though, has already been spoiled in the trailers and TV ads, a sign of desperation by the marketing department to trick audiences into buying a ticket).
Even the premise promised by the title, which is laid out early on by MacFarlane in one of his few effective monologues (how did anyone survive the old West?), is set aside in favor of a dull zero-to-hero story. Ted, too, suffered from a third-act sentimental twist, but the plentiful laughs that preceded it made the shift in tone easier to forgive.
A Million Ways to Die in the West has wonderful opening credits that pay homage to John Ford’s Monument Valley westerns, and there are some good throwaway bits, such as a scene at an outrageously offensive shooting gallery at a carnival. But you expect more from an R-rated MacFarlane comedy than sheep penises or Neeson having a daisy stuck up his bare butt. The actors must have cracked up on the set. Too bad the merriment doesn’t spill over into the audience.
Cast: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Neil Patrick Harris, Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman, Liam Neeson, Wes Studi.
Director: Seth MacFarlane.
Screenwriters: Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, Wellesley Wild.
A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 116 minutes. Copious vulgar language, crude humor, sexual situations, violence, gore, adult themes. Opens May 30 at area theaters.