'Million Ways to Die' is mostly tumbleweeds

Matt Pais movie review: 'A Million Ways to Die in the West'

RedEye's Matt Pais and Ernest Wilkins express shock over two terrible movies in this week's "Good or What?"

*1/2 (out of four)

Love it or hate it, the mean-spirited, wildly profitable “Ted” delivered jokes almost faster than you could process them. It was Seth MacFarlane doing close to nothing to adapt his non sequitur-heavy, racism- and misogyny-friendly sensibilities from animated TV to the big screen.

His ted-ious follow-up, “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” allows long stretches between stabs at comedy and is ambitious only in theory. Practically nobody makes expensive Westerns anymore. Kudos to MacFarlane for having the guts (arrogance?) to succeed the biggest R-rated comedy of all time with a film that arrives out of the gate at a disadvantage. Or maybe that’s the idea: So if “AMWTODITW” tanks, the filmmaker can blame the genre. Not, say, the self-made movie star who can’t play a likable underdog, the director who can’t shoot an exciting action sequence or the co-writer who resorts to jokes like a sheep peeing in his face and a man having diarrhea into a hat.

Too often, diarrhea-into-a-hat feels like a metaphor for what MacFarlane’s doing with the movie. As Albert, a smarmy, 40-something sheep farmer with the frustrated entitlement of a modern teenager, he complains about the lousy conditions in 1882 Arizona as if he’s been sent back in time. He hates the West but has no goals, so his grumbling about the many dangers and inconveniences are DOA. Shot by a fellow farmer and dumped by his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) in the same day, Albert experiences rare good luck when Anna (Charlize Theron) arrives in the town of Old Stump. He doesn’t know she’s married to the villainous Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson, funnier in "The Lego Movie"). Albert just thinks she’s a pretty face kind enough to train him for his upcoming duel with Louise’s new man. He's played by Neil Patrick Harris, beneficial mostly to hear the former Barney Stinson declare, “Challenge accepted!” once more.

Where “Blazing Saddles” aimed to expose ignorance, the overlong “West” perpetuates it. Lazy, racist comments flit about, finding humor in bad taste without questioning it. Farts accumulate; an anti-Semitic gag (a MacFarlane staple) makes it in. Subplots go nowhere, and a few laughs emerge. Albert mocks and mocks some more, including the “retardation” of one of his sheep.

The filmmaker has gotten ahead of these criticisms, imagining bad reviews with Jimmy Fallon as if they therefore should be dismissed. Yet MacFarlane’s not that self-aware. If he were, he’d find it ironic that it’s Louise, not Albert, whom Anna calls “sour and self-absorbed.”

Watch Matt review the week's big new movies Fridays at noon on NBC.

mpais@tribune.com

 

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