May 30, 2014 at 1:00 am

Review: In lazy 'Million Ways to Die in the West,' jokes get old fast

Seth MacFarlane directs, produces, co-writes and plays the role of the cowardly sheep farmer Albert in 'A Million Ways to Die in the West.' (MCT)

“A Million Ways to Die in the West” is every bit a Seth MacFarlane Western. Not only does the “Family Guy” creator write and direct the plodding Western send-up, he stars as a version of himself that is so close to his wry, mocking persona that it’s surprising his character’s name isn’t Seth MacFarlane.

The movie’s main joke is MacFarlane’s character, Albert, doesn’t speak like an 1880s sheep farmer but rather like a modern day, well, Seth McFarlane. He cracks jokes about how awful the West is and how bad the times are that he’s living in like a stand-up comedian doing a routine on Westerns. It’s MacFarlane’s first big acting role on screen, and his signature is not even attempting to play a character. It’s like he’s the Oscar host who wanders onto the set of a sprawling Western and makes fun of everything he sees.

The joke wears old, fast. “A Million Ways to Die in the West” has a handsome look and a talented cast, but squanders them in favor of lazy writing (cue the flatulence jokes! Now cue them again!) and violent bursts of shock humor. “Family Guy” devotees may get a kick out of the post-modern, self-referential humor, but everyone else will wish MacFarlane cared more about his subject.

Albert is a hapless sheep farmer (clearing the way for lots of sheep jokes) who gets dumped by his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried), though the script never makes clear what the two had in common. With the help of Anna (Charlize Theron), a gunslinger new to town, Albert challenges Louise’s new boyfriend, Foy (Neil Patrick Harris in a mustache, clearing the way for lots of mustache jokes), to a gun duel, but finds himself in hot water with Anna’s husband, Clinch (Liam Neeson, menacing but underused).

Theron gives more than is required, and against the odds strikes up a decent chemistry with MacFarlane. But the movie — while not leaning as heavily on pop culture asides as MacFarlane’s last effort, the 2012 blockbuster “Ted” — feels more like an extended riff than a fully fleshed-out film. Its stabs at dark humor — a man getting crushed to death by a block of ice, for example — are out-of-place, but MacFarlane keeps coming back to them. Maybe they were easier to write than actual jokes. Or scenes. Or characters.

'A Million Ways to Die in the West'

GRADE: C-

Rated R for strong crude and sexual content, language throughout, some violence and drug material

Running time: 116 minutes

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