Seth MacFarlane’s sloggy comic oater, A Million Ways To Die In The West, never wastes a good joke by telling it only once. Two is the minimum; four is better. MacFarlane’s “stoned nerd” shtick can be funny in single doses, but around the movie’s halfway point, it becomes clear that he and his Ted and Family Guy co-writers, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, have brought only 30 minutes of material to a two-hour movie. To make up, A Million Ways continually extrapolates on a small set of jokes: the use of cocaine as an ingredient in medicine (two instances); extended, Family Guy-style non-parodies (Back To The Future Part III, Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, and Django Unchained); Old West people getting stoned (two instances, plus a drug-trip sequence); the fact that nobody smiles in early photos (four instances); a shooting gallery with “runaway slave” targets (enough for one shot, but used for an entire scene and a mid-credits stinger); the idea of a “devoutly Christian” prostitute who only practices abstinence with her fiancé (more than 10 instances); the social significance of mustaches in 19th-century culture (more than 10 instances, plus a musical number). Few of these get funnier after the first iteration. Several become annoying.
Wearing a perpetual smirk and a tremendous amount of makeup, MacFarlane stars as Albert Stark, a self-aware sheep farmer in 1882 Arizona. After his schoolteacher girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him for the oily proprietor (Neil Patrick Harris) of an upscale “mustachery,” Albert sets out to win her back, and in the process befriends new arrival Anna (Charlize Theron), unaware that she is the wife of notorious outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson, doing an exaggerated “stage Irish” accent). Playing his first major live-action role, MacFarlane behaves like a sputtering stand-up, riffing on weak material in extended take. (There’s one about how he imagines a black man might react to a bustle that’s especially groan-worthy.)
Comedy is humor organized, given shape and purpose. Like much of MacFarlane’s work, A Million Ways suffers from an inability to maintain consistent characters or to make plot funny. (Ted now appears to be an outlier.) It’s essentially a voice-acting exercise, where every third line of dialogue qualifies as an aside and people rarely move while talking. Whenever MacFarlane—who has enough trouble maintaining basic continuity—has to stage a fight or choreograph a musical number, the whole thing falls apart. Every now and then, though, the movie manages to pull out a funny joke—like a cutaway visual gag involving an unshorn sheep, or a character complaining about how, in the Old West, “there’s only like three songs, and they’re all by Stephen Foster”—only to lose it in a pile of repeated setups, lame ethnic humor, and over-extended scatological bits. This is the kind of movie where a man shitting in a hat is not enough; he must shit in two hats, and then spill one of them in close-up.