Movie review: Seth MacFarlane’s Western comedy uneven but hits more than it misses

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From the May 29, 2014 edition

If you want the power to make a comedy your way in Hollywood, all you need is to have success first. Yeah, it’s kind of a chicken-egg thing, huh?

Seth MacFarlane is following in the TV-then-movie footsteps of “South Park” co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and Judd Apatow, and the success of 2012’s “Ted” has seemingly already given him enough leash to do what he wants.

And what he wants is “A Million Ways To Die in the West,” the western comedy he directed, produced, co-wrote and starred in. This begs the question, how much MacFarlane is too much? (See his one-time stint as Oscar host for the answer.)

Albert (MacFarlane) is a less-than-brave sheep farmer who isn’t really a fan of life in the American West in the late 1800s, noting correctly that just about everything can kill you. When he tries to talk his way out of a gunfight, his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) decides she’s seen enough cowardice and ends the relationship.

Then the beautiful, gun-toting Anna (Charlize Theron) comes to town, offering Albert friendship, ex-girlfriend jealousy bait and marksmanship lessons.

Over the years with “Family Guy” and its spinoffs, MacFarlane has carved out his niche: rapid-fire jokes, a mixture of highbrow and lowbrow and a love of all things scatological. If you love his stuff, you’ll love “Ways To Die in the West.”

The reason this generally works? If you don’t laugh at a joke, another will be along in a moment. If every joke in this movie actually hit, your sides would literally be splitting (which is a serious medical issue, by the way).

As it stands, it’s terribly uneven and misses too much, but the sheer volume of gags make the laughs plentiful enough for a ticket.

Theron has some untapped comedic chops on display, and there’s great support from Neil Patrick Harris as a moustache-twirling romantic rival and Sarah Silverman as a brothel prostitute who is “saving herself for marriage” with her meek boyfriend (Giovanni Ribisi). I did find myself wishing MacFarlane took himself out of the lead, if only because his comedic fingerprints are already everywhere.

Is this the next “Blazing Saddles”? No. But there are enough silly laughs sprinkled throughout if you’re into this brand of comedy.

Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures