For every literate Jane Austen reference or muscular musical moment in “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” there are four flatulence jokes or crudely detailed descriptions of a prostitute’s services.Or a sheep peeing on someone’s face.
And in a scene that begs the question of what hath “Bridesmaids” wrought, there is an episode of public defecation involving not a wedding dress but another wardrobe item not intended for such use.
Starring: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Liam Neeson, Neil Patrick Harris.
Rating: R for strong crude and sexual content, language throughout, some violence and drug material.
“A Million Ways” is the work of Seth MacFarlane, best known for creating the animated Fox comedy series “Family Guy” and smartly pairing Mark Wahlberg with “Ted,” a talking bear. He brought his mix of classy and crude to the 2013 Oscars; as host, he (in)famously performed a song about seeing actresses’ breasts in movies.
Here, director, co-writer and actor Mr. MacFarlane plays 19th-century sheep farmer Albert Stark who pretty much despises everything about frontier life from snakes and cholera to doctors with wacky treatments. Throw in outlaws, American Indians, wild animals, deadly dangers at the county fair and gunfights as the only way to settle disputes in the town of Old Stump and he’s had it.
The last straw comes when his girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), dumps him and takes up with the town dandy and condescending moustachery owner, Foy (Neil Patrick Harris).
But life brightens when newcomer Anna (Charlize Theron) arrives and boosts his crushed confidence and becomes his sharpshooting instructor.
He doesn’t know that she is the wife of a controlling, cold-blooded criminal, Clinch Leatherwood (the always welcome Liam Neeson), setting the stage for a possible duel in the sun and maybe a few laughs along the way.
Albert is not a time traveler like Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” although the comedy features a cameo by a celebrated character who is.
Nevertheless, Albert seems not like a resident of 1882 Arizona but a contemporary figure transported back in time to the West with modern observations, language and attitudes. Handed a home-baked treat, he says, “This is a pot cookie. My worst fear is to OD on a recreational drug.”
“A Million Ways” nails some of the details from classic Westerns, such as the grizzled geezer prospecting for gold, Joel McNeely’s big-sky score, which soars as men on horseback race across open land, stunning sunsets silhouetting a man and woman, and the sort of noisy saloon fight that sends brawlers crashing through tables or second-story railings.
Mr. Harris expertly leads a barn dance to the tune, “If You’ve Only Got a Moustache” and a scene in which Albert mistakenly smokes an entire bowl of peyote or some other hallucinogenic substance is clever and surreal. Too often, though, Mr. MacFarlane resorts to offensive, juvenile or raunchy humor, which admittedly has served him well.
That includes the relationship between the virginal Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and his longtime girlfriend, Ruth (Sarah Silverman), who happens to be the town’s busiest prostitute. They’re Christians so they’re saving themselves for marriage even though she’s servicing 15 men a day.
A joke about a women’s bustle — and how it might be mistaken for an ample posterior, thereby disappointing a particular group of men — isn’t funny and a cameo at movie’s end by an Oscar-winning actor doesn’t counter it.
Do not mistake the R-rated comedy for a traditional Western; this wild bunch slings more bawdy jokes than guns and only a few hit their mark.
Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.