Yep, the movie is pretty by-the-numbers, but that actually works in its favor. MacFarlane isn’t an unconventional storyteller or an artist with a message. He’s a joke factory with hundreds of TV episodes worth of experience and a stable of writers who can hang laughs onto just about anything. Just like how ‘Ted’ took the manchild and magic-best-friend genre staples and spun filthy comedy gold out of them, ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’ takes old-timey Western conventions and adds hard R comedy to the genre’s bones. Every bodily function, ironic racial stereotype and pop culture reference in the MacFarlane comedy repertoire makes an appearance, and the laughs come in big heaping doses. The movie also has plenty of failed gags, of course, but this is one of those comedies where the bad jokes don’t matter because the next joke is never more than a few seconds away. Admittedly, the movie doesn’t reach the lunatic highs of ‘Ted’ (it has nothing with quite the punch of the ‘Flash Gordon’ cameo), but this flick also doesn’t have a movie-halting failed third act either. Ultimately, it balances out and both of MacFarlane’s directorial efforts are about even in quality.
As an actor, MacFarlane is surprisingly watchable. He has a self-effacing, nerdy, goofball charm that works well even if he’s outclassed by most of his supporting cast. Theron clearly has a ball raunching it up in an R-rated comedy and the fun she has is infectious. Neil Patrick Harris delivers one of his ironically nasty performances, and he’s gotten so good at this schtick that it’s hard to believe that he was once just that ‘Doogie Howser’ guy. Liam Neeson, Giovanni Ribisi, and Amanda Seryfried are all cast to type and they do it well. Sarah Silverman is somewhat wasted in a one-note role, but her natural comedic talent makes it feel like at least 1.5 jokes. Cameos fill the screen elsewhere. This is an undeniably well cast movie, which makes it work very smoothly as a joke delivery system.
MacFarlane might get a lot of hate from the comedy snob community, but compared to what Adam Sandler tries to pass off as mainstream comedy once a year, the guy is practically Andy Kaufman. ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’ is exactly the type of laugh-til-you’re-in-physical-pain-without-ever-challenging-your-brain mainstream comedy that should be the norm in Hollywood. It might not offer much more than laughs, but this type of comedy doesn’t have to. If you’ve got a sweet tooth for MacFarlane’s personal brand of good natured “offensive” comedy, then ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’ is the exact type of choke-on-your-popcorn gigglefest that you crave during summer movie season. Many more ambitious and intelligent comedies will come along this year, but few will have this many genuine laughs. Hopefully that Seth MacFarlane kid sticks with this comedy thing. He’s pretty good it.