"A Million Ways to Die in the West" is a grim vanity project for, by and about its creator, "Family Guy" guru Seth MacFarlane, determined here to prove himself capable of carrying his own movie in a romantic-comic leading role. He hits his marks; he's just not funny or interesting. Don Knotts made "The Shakiest Gun in the West"; MacFarlane is the smuggest.
Plenty of comedies aren't funny, but this one is more than that. It's wholeheartedly narcissistic in its portrait of male petulance and self-pity, and it arrives in theaters at a time when we're actually talking about the free-floating hostility and implications of various R-rated comedies, good or bad, expressing a casually (or overtly) misogynist view of the world. If MacFarlane's latest succeeds with the public, as did his feature film directorial debut, "Ted," then honestly: The public deserves more of it.
The director, producer, co-writer and star appears to be working through some relational trust issues in "A Million Ways to Die in the West," in which MacFarlane plays an inept sheep farmer in 1882 Arizona. A fast-talking coward in the Bob Hope "Paleface" vein, Albert has a sour streak he pins on all the times a devious, hurtful female has "disappointed" him, destroyed his trust, eroded his self-worth. (Seriously: This film has a strange odor.)
When his flighty, shallow steady (Amanda Seyfried; character name irrelevant) dumps him for a sniveling fancy man with money (Neil Patrick Harris), Albert suffers a crisis of confidence cured by the new gal in town, the hottest, tallest, coolest, warmest female within several states and territories. She's played by Charlize Theron; her character, as we realize but Albert does not, is the much-abused wife of the notorious outlaw and gunman played by Liam Neeson. The story comes down to a duel between the nervous sheep farmer and the snake with the Irish brogue, who keeps one hand in a leather glove (the old "Of Mice and Men" bit). Sarah Silverman plays the local prostitute, engaged to her loyal, virginal boyfriend, portrayed as a lovelorn twitch by Giovanni Ribisi.
The film features the most violent and least amusing barroom brawl in memory. The jokes are heavily dependent on "Family Guy"-type hit-and-run references ("Back to the Future," et al.) and pointless cameos (Ryan Reynolds?) and misjudged, outlandishly gory violence. I suppose that stuff's easier to take if it's animated. Here it's stiff, stilted, poorly paced live action. It's no fun watching a guy's head pulverized, bloodily, by a huge block of ice, or someone gored by a runaway steer, simply so that MacFarlane the director can cut away to MacFarlane the actor, looking appalled.
"A Million Ways to Die in the West" is too lazy to concoct real jokes, so its characters, most of them 21st-century anachronisms heckling the conventions and tropes of the Western genre, resort to saying the word "fudge" a lot. A lot. A lot. A shooting-gallery scene in which contestants fire away at little tin images of caricatured runaway slaves is enough to cast a pall on the entire picture; typical of MacFarlane's two-faced acumen as a popular entertainer, his own character makes note of the offensiveness, yet the scene grinds on.
In "Ted," Mark Wahlberg's character couldn't get off the couch and out of adolescence thanks to the temptations afforded by his walking, talking, carousing teddy bear. Mila Kunis' character found it all quite charming, because she was the lead female and that's what women do in movies like that. They tolerate and smile, adoringly. "A Million Ways to Die in the West" does the same to Theron, who is confined to chuckling every time MacFarlane gets off another ad-libby aside.
What we have here is a failure of craft. He can't direct action, or even handle scenery well. He can't set up a visual joke properly without resorting to head-butting and bone-crunching, and he doesn't know how, or when, to move his camera. He's not good enough as a romantic lead to anchor a picture. The throwaway comments often involve wacky condescension toward Jews, Muslims, African-Americans and, most of all, women, who are either decorative and pliable or losers.
I didn't mind the mustache song, though, showcased in a barn-dance sequence. "Family Guy" proved that MacFarlane can write all sorts of crafty musical pastiches. He has talent, and millions. What he does with the latter is his business. The way he's squandering the former, unfortunately, is the culture's.