When it comes to absurdist comedies, they just don’t make ’em like they used to. The Franco crew has made forays into the genre with varying degrees of success (This is the End, Your Highness), and now Team MacFarlane is stepping up to the plate with A Million Ways to Die in the West. Of course, Blazing Saddles is the gold standard and obvious reference point for comparison. As you might expect, A Million Ways is no Saddles; but despite some flaws, I actually liked it. It’s different from most of what you see in the theater these days, and that’s something I can appreciate.

From the very beginning you know you’re in for something that differs from your expectations, whatever they may be. The opening credits are a throwback to a different era, complete with sweeping vistas, a rousing western score, and the bulk of the credits occurring before the movie begins. It’s 1882 in Arizona, and the American West sucks. Albert Stark (Seth MacFarlane), a sheep farmer, is fast-talking his way out of a gunfight he has no chance of winning. This humiliation turns out to be the last straw for his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried), who breaks up with him shortly thereafter.

Life in Old Stump is complicated by the arrival of Anna (Charlize Theron), wife of bad guy Clinch (Liam Neeson), who is traveling incognito while waiting for her husband to return from a heist. When Albert almost accidentally saves Anna from a falling gunslinger in a bar fight, the two become friends and she offers to help Albert win Louise back. Naturally, along the way, Anna realizes what a great guy Albert is and falls for him, which of course means trouble when the villainous Clinch finally rolls into town.

Overall, I surprised myself by liking this movie. I laughed a lot — the humor starts strong out of the gate, and keeps you chuckling on a fairly regular basis, especially in the first half. The second half lags a little and goes more for sentiment and quasi-drama than humor, which brings us to the crux of the issue with this movie. I get the feeling the marketing folks didn’t really know what to do with A Million Ways, and that’s partly because the movie itself doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. The trailers had me walking in to the theater assuming the movie was going to be awful. But it wasn’t bad, just a little confused. It’s not a full on aping of Mel Brooks/Saddles, where the entire thing is just absurd in a way that works beautifully. There’s definitely absurdity, including ridiculous song-and-dance numbers and outrageous deaths (hence the name). But it’s also trying to be sweet, and even thinks about venturing into “darker,” more “dramatic” territory with baddie villain Clinch and his murderous gang. It’s nice that the movie has heart, but the “drama” doesn’t always work. A few of the “absurd” bits don’t work either; a hallucinogenic vision sequence in particular was a low point.

A good bit of the humor stems from good, old fashioned foul language, and there’s plenty of gross out humor to be had in the form of farts, shits, and other bodily functions. There are also plenty of deliberately offensive jokes, with almost no racial or religious minority (or majority, for that matter) spared. It’s definitely a throwback to Saddles-type humor, but I don’t know if modern America can be trusted to get it. The humor works because you know MacFarlane only means to point out the absurdities of people who did/do really think that way; but I imagine there’s going to be a lot of outrage from folks who can’t figure that out. The pacing is a bit clunky or slow at times. An early, overly long MacFarlane monologue about how awful the West is slows things down a bit, and is the biggest example of a “too much MacFarlane” syndrome that occasionally gets things off course.

The casting works reasonably well for the most part. The weakest link is MacFarlane; he tries hard, but he’s not a leading man. He does manage to pull off a dorkily sweet chemistry with Theron and scores with the laughs more often than not, but he just shouldn’t be trying to carry a movie. There are definitely some times when you wish he would step aside and let others have some more screen time. Theron is breezy and enjoying a charming camaraderie with MacFarlane (most of the cast is obviously having a great time making this movie, which helps). Neil Patrick Harris gets in some laughs as a pretentious, mustachioed rich guy, and isn’t too proud to pull off some disgusting physical comedy. Sarah Silverman and Giovanni Ribisi provide some chuckles as a ditzy whore and her virgin boyfriend. Liam Neeson is kind of a one-note baddie, with nothing more to do than be inexplicably evil. A variety of cameos mostly work, though one in particular (I won’t spoil it) falls kind of flat.

I won’t say I know exactly what Seth MacFarlane was hoping to accomplish with A Million Ways to Die in the West. Ostensibly, as MacFarlane himself has noted, the goal is to look past the romanticized version of the Old West and find the comedy in the fact that is was actually a pretty terrible place where everything you encountered was trying to kill you. But it’s still illogical to me that after coming off the massive success of Ted, MacFarlane and fellow writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild said, “I know! The kids these days want to see Western comedies!” They don’t; but I hope they will. The bottom line is that this movie throws a lot out there to see what sticks, and I think enough of it works. If you like an adult comedy that has you chuckling even as you’re turning to your date to mouth “what the fuck is happening??”, don’t let some of the lackluster trailers you may have seen or naysayers you may have heard hold you back. Give it a chance.

A MILLIONS WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST opens in wide release Friday, May 30, 2014. Rated R for strong crude and sexual content, language throughout, some violence and drug material.

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