There's no accounting for taste, they say, which might explain the $549 million worldwide gross for Seth MacFarlane's 2012 comedy Ted. Something tells me the planet won't go quite so gaga for his Western-themed sophomore effort, A Million Ways to Die in the West, but it's considerably better—even within spitting distance of good.
MacFarlane's last movie could be summed up in a few words—foul-mouthed teddy bear—but A Million Ways to Die in the West has at least two ideas more sophisticated than crossing Teddy Ruxpin with a blue insult comic. The first is right there in the title: that the Old West was a miserable, deadly place to be. The second is that giving the lead character extra insight on this would be funny. Neither of these ideas is especially original (the latter approach, a tonal sensibility, has fueled many a fish-out-of-water historical comedy, like Woody Allen basically plunking his 20th-century nebbish into czarist Russia for Love and Death), but together, they're a start.
In 1882, sheep farmer Albert Stark (MacFarlane) languishes in the frontier town of Old Stump, Arizona. Too smart-mouthed for his own good, he finds himself in one of those Main Street quick-draw showdowns, but the cowardice he shows puts the nail in the coffin of his relationship with local girl Louise (Amanda Seyfried). Albert's having a hard time letting go of Louise when Anna (an appealing Charlize Theron) turns up in town and, taking a shine to Albert, volunteers to help him show Louise what she's missing.
But we know something Albert doesn't: that Anna has gone AWOL from the gang of murderous bandit Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson). Plus Anna's "help" gets Albert obligated to another gunfight, this time with Louise's new boyfriend Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), who runs the town "moustachery." These background threats give the screenplay—by MacFarlane & Alec Sulkin & Wellesley Wild—a bit of useful tension, but the main throughline is old-school romantic comedy as Albert slowly awakens to Anna's interest in him and realizes reciprocating it would be an excellent idea.
The whole of A Million Ways to Die in the West is lesser than the sum of its parts due to deficits of ambition, invention and commitment. MacFarlane and company don't push hard enough in their deconstruction of the Old West: you may feel at times like you're in a writer's room hearing jokes pitched rather than enjoying a final draft. Still, a number of those gags are pretty good. Kudos for including jokes about Stephen Foster (including a touched-up version of Foster's "If You've Only Got a Moustache") and a runner about how no one smiles in old photographs.
In the deficit column, MacFarlane collects famous friends and puts them to waste in tee-hee cameos or underwritten parts (fans of Neeson and Sarah Silverman, who plays a Christian prostitute, will walk away disappointed), even as he struggles to hold the screen in his first on-camera leading role. The real stars here are the Monument Valley scenery (afforded the entire old-fashioned opening title sequence to Joel McNeely's lively score), Theron and Harris, who demonstrates his comic Midas Touch by making funny gestures and funnier noises between limp lines of dialogue.