BY AMBER KELLY-ANDERSON
Love it or hate it, Mel Brook’s Blazing Saddles is a piece of cinematic history that skewered the Old West in a way that balanced nostalgia with slapstick and a dash of madness. It is perhaps appropriate then that forty years later, America’s resident smartass Seth MacFarlane has tossed his comedy lasso around the Western genre in the sexist, yet still funny A Million Ways to Die in the West.
MacFarlane plays Albert Stark, a weak sheep farmer whose greatest talent is pontificating to his best friend (Giovanni Ribsi) about why the Western frontier is actually the gates of Hell. Dumped by Louise (Amanda Seyfried) for the showier Foy (Neil Patrick Harris, who plays the wealthy man as Barney Stinson-turned-melodrama villain, literally twirling his moustache), Albert plots to win his socially mobile ex-girlfriend back. As fate would have it, Anna (Charlize Theron) arrives in town with a murky past and a quick draw. Stepping into the role of mentor, she trains Albert in the noble art of gunfighting, failing to mention that she is hiding out from her outlaw husband Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson).
Whether on one of his television shows or in 2012’s highly successful Ted, MacFarlane is the king of mishmash comedy–he magpies cultural references only to toss them out at his whim. The joke, then, is often only as funny was the audience can make it (such as the appearance of Christopher Lloyd with a certain Delorean). It’s all about context. Much of A Million Ways to Die in the West manages to be funny in its own right, even if the audience doesn’t contextualize the deliberate references to Blazing Saddles.
As with all of MacFarlane’s work, the juxtaposition of high and low brow is offsetting, yet fits with his overall style of comedy, such as a drug sequence which showcases sheep penises while visually referencing Salvador Dali’s Los Elefantes. Likewise, MacFarlane is himself a master of juxtaposition with his choirboy face and whorehouse mouth. He’s the smartest guy in the class who isn’t afraid to show off while cracking a few fart jokes. Some of the body function jokes take things a step further than needed, but those almost feel like a necessary escalation of the trail laid by Blazing Saddles.
Perhaps the only truly disappointing part of the film is MacFarlane’s reversal on the character of Anna. Played by Theron, Anna is smart, sassy and wickedly skilled. (This and Young Adults are evidence Theron should do more comedies.) Even under her tutelage, it is evident that Albert cannot compare with her. So turning her into a damsel in distress by choice in the film’s third act just doesn’t work. Albert does rely on his brains in a fulfilling way; too bad he couldn’t do the same for his lady.