One of my most vivid childhood moviegoing memories is when my dad took me to see “The Waterboy” starring Adam Sandler. I was nine, and I laughed and laughed and laughed, probably harder than I ever had before. Critics panned the movie, but they weren’t part of the ideal audience. I was — old enough to “get” most of the crude jokes and young enough that they still struck me as novel, edgy.
I’m sure many nine-year-old boys will have the exact same experience with Seth MacFarlane’s “A Million Ways to Die in the West” — at least those with cooler parents than mine were, as this is a hard-R rated raunchfest, unlike the PG-13 “Waterboy.” I still remember Dad reaching to cover my eyes at the slightest possibility of Fairuza Balk dropping her bra; MacFarlane’s movie defies such a makeshift censorial mechanism.
The point of all this nostalgia-spewing is: there’s a part of me that wants to cut MacFarlane’s tasteless, juvenile comedy some slack, because there is a young audience who will enjoy it, and their enjoyment will be all in good fun. In fact, I imagine that MacFarlane devised “A Million Ways to Die in the West” for his own preteen self, given the combination of the Old West setting with the naughty humor. This is a movie for boys of that certain age when hero-villain gunplay and a joke comparing the female genitalia to roast beef elicit equally gleeful reactions.
The problem is, the movie wasn’t just made for boys in a five-year window around adolescence; it’s being sold as a mass-appeal comedy blockbuster. And frankly, there’s very little for an adult to enjoy here (at least one with a respectable IQ). “A Million Ways to Die in the West” presents itself as a spoof of westerns—the font of the opening titles immediately recalls “Blazing Saddles”—but it’s actually quite limited in this regard. MacFarlane mainly just uses the old-fashioned setting as a new locale for the brand of toilet humor he’s become known for with “Ted” and TV’s “Family Guy,” plus some throwaway jokes concerning mortality rates and sexual practices on the American Frontier.
These gags miss a lot more frequently than they hit, and with a running time of nearly two hours, the movie often feels like the product of MacFarlane throwing everything he’s got onscreen and hoping some of it works. Most of the humor is extraneous to the central narrative, which involves MacFarlane’s protagonist (yes, he stars, without a cartoon character embodying his voice) falling in love with a new-in-town vixen (Charlize Theron) who, unbeknownst to him, is the unhappy wife of Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), the most lethal outlaw in the West.
The movie almost certainly would have benefitted from MacFarlane axing many of his trademark random one-liners, which just add flab to the run-time with little amusing upside, and better utilizing the resources at his disposal. Liam Neeson, for instance, is barely allowed the chance to say something funny, despite being integral to the plot. This is a shame in light of the actor’s seemingly unpredictable late-career trajectory; I was hoping he would be allowed to reveal previously unexposed comedic chops, just as he surprised us with his badassery in “Taken” five years ago. Similarly, Amanda Seyfried, who proved her ability to elicit laughs in “Mean Girls,” is rendered a mere narrative fixture.
Thus, it would seem that MacFarlane is only interested in his own poo-poo-gah-gah humor. One wonders if “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is an amalgamation of every joke the writer/director conceived for “Family Guy” that wasn’t appropriate for network airwaves and didn’t make the final cut in “Ted,” slightly modified to fit the Old West mold. And by every joke, I mean every joke; there’s so little editing restraint on display here that one wonders if editor Jeff Freeman simply allowed his credit to be used so he’d qualify for healthcare from the union this year.
In fact, the movie’s funniest scenes are those that seemingly parody its own lack of restraint and comedic decorum. A certain diarrhea joke involving Neil Patrick Harris’ Foy goes on for what feels like ten minutes, and dares to show us far more brown-matter than “Bridesmaids,” the last mainstream comedy to dwell on feces for so long, did. This feels like MacFarlane’s acknowledgement that his sensibilities can’t be contained, that he can’t help but try for vulgar success no matter how many times he fails within the course two hours. His style takes the dictionary definition of crude—“not yet processed or refined”—to a new extreme. Nine-year-old Danny would have treasured such distastefulness—and would have surely laughed at MacFarlane’s failed attempts no matter how unfunny they actually were—but 25-year-old Danny groaned and waited for the movie to be over.