Seth MacFarlane's "A Million Ways to Die in the West" is like a political documentary, because it will likely divide audiences faster than a debate between a tea party candidate and a socialist.
The film's detractors will argue that humorous flatulence jokes began and ended with "Blazing Saddles," the gold standard of comedic Westerns. They'll say that the many F-bombs are just a cheap attempt to punch up punchless dialogue. They'll find little cleverness in MacFarlane's attempts to satirize the Old West, because so much of the material is cliched and obvious (and not in a way that successfully satirizes movie cliches). They'll pooh-pooh MacFarlane as a nonactor, whose protagonist is too whiny to be any sort of hero, even in a comedy.
On the other side will be the viewers who aren't afraid of lowbrow humor and like that director and co-writer MacFarlane, who shares screenwriting credits with Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, mixes in just enough cleverness with the foul-mouthed infantile jokes. An overwhelming chunk of this crowd will be young men not old enough to remember Mel Brooks or, say, the underrated, more subtle 1985 comedy "Rustlers' Rhapsody."
I get both sides, though I've seen far too many lowbrow comedies that worked beautifully to get much out of "A Million Ways to Die in the West." While I can appreciate some of the well-worn gags here (I, too, have wondered why no one in the 19th century was allowed to smile in photographs), I didn't find myself actually laughing until the movie was about three-quarters done. By then, it was too late.
MacFarlane plays Albert Stark, a smart but cowardly Arizona sheep farmer in 1882. His devotion to mediocrity drives his girlfriend and town hottie, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), into the arms of Foy, the dapper owner of the town's moustachery (Neil Patrick Harris, who, as usual, looks like he's enjoying every minute). As Albert, MacFarlane misses more than he connects. It's almost as if he doesn't think his jokes are funny enough and has to push until the audience winces. The idea of Sarah Silverman playing a prostitute saving herself for her boyfriend, Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), until they're married is funny -- until we have to endure a misplaced body fluids joke (that was funny once, and only once, in "There's Something About Mary").
Albert's luck changes when Anna (Charlize Theron), wife of the territory's most notorious villain, Clinch Leatherwood (played with little inspiration by Liam Neeson), hides out in town. Theron's Anna is refreshingly natural. She takes Albert under her wing to prepare him for a big gunfight and, of course, falls for him, setting up the big conflict once Clinch hits town.
A few funny bits appear along the way (excitement over real paper money, a random bull wreaking havoc, a well-placed cameo from the star of a huge 1980s film). But those moments are swamped by gags about feces, urinating, slavery and anal sex, and some skull-crushing violence. I get it -- Seth MacFarlane specializes in clever lowbrow humor. But, as shown in his animated TV series "Family Guy," MacFarlane is best when he challenges his own imagination, instead of merely settling for the lowest common denominator. So many of the bits in "A Million Ways to Die in the West" feel like they were just jammed into the script at the last minute.
Strangely, things take a sharp turn toward movie's end, once Albert gets captured by Indians and the drugs kick in (Albert's, not MacFarlane's, though one never knows). Suddenly, the satire becomes sharper, and MacFarlane's weird imagination produces the movie's most hilarious scenes, by far.
But it's too little, too late. If MacFarlane was hoping to make a new generation's "Blazing Saddles," he failed amid an avalanche of dumb. Next time, he should use the good jokes first and build from there.