LOS ANGELES - Seth MacFarlane might've picked a safer place to make his lead-acting debut than "A Million Ways to Die in the West," his directorial follow-up to 2012's surprisingly successful "Ted." The marketplace doesn't seem to be crying out for Westerns, after all - be they earnest revivals, satires, or genre hybrids involving extra-terrestrials - and the undeniably of-his-moment MacFarlane is, as the script indirectly admits, a strange fit for the genre. Stocking the supporting cast with top-drawer talent, he gives most of his co-stars little to do besides attract our attention on movie posters.
A winking mid-film cameo prompts viewers to wonder how MacFarlane might have fared playing a time-traveler from our era stranded in the Old West. Instead, his 1880s sheep farmer Albert Stark simply talks like someone born in and transplanted from the 20th century. "We live in a terrible place and time," Albert tells friends Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and Ruth (Sarah Silverman), assessing his surroundings as if seeing medical and social realities through our eyes. There are too many ways to die out here, he laments - though most of the shock-violence gags the movie employs demonstrate the risks not of living in an age before modern medicine but of inhabiting a world whose authors aren't terribly gifted at slapstick.
Dumped by his longtime sweetheart Louise (Amanda Seyfried), Albert is about ready to leave town when he meets Anna (Charlize Theron), a newcomer who appreciates his gentle personality in a way locals don't. Perhaps that's because she's secretly betrothed to the meanest cuss in these parts, a bandit called Clinch (Liam Neeson), who has sent her here to hide out while he dodges the law for a spell.
(The preceding sentence contains more Western-ese than the entire script MacFarlane wrote with Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, which dates itself instead with stuff like "oh, snap," "oh no I did-uhnt," and "douche.")
While Albert frets about Louise's new romance with fancy-pants shopkeeper Foy (Neil Patrick Harris, whose vain moustache-tonic merchant is a reliable laugh-getter), Anna takes an inexplicable interest in helping him stand up for himself. Why? Though MacFarlane eventually demonstrates a knack for low-key flirty humor, Albert's appeal at the start of their friendship is hard to see. One assumes Anna knows how much money Ted will make in 130 or so years and wants to get in on the ground floor.
In a rare display of nerve, Albert challenges Foy to a duel; as Anna offers him the gunslinger lessons that will inevitably lead to love, the film's supporting cast all but vanishes from the film. (Just as well, perhaps, as the screenplay is about to run out of ways to poke fun at the fact that Albert's buddy Edward is a virgin in a chaste relationship with Ruth, the town's busiest whore.) The romance plot could hardly be more familiar, but at least it plays out against a landscape so dramatic one almost suspects the filmmakers composited a few extra sandstone formations into Monument Valley. Theron carries almost all the weight here, given her partner's unexpected blandness, which makes it vaguely insulting when the third act turns her into a helpless damsel in need of his rescue.
Though the film is hardly laugh-free, its uneven jokes appear to have breezed through a very forgiving editing process. "You really shouldn't drink and horse," Edward tells a soused Albert as he heads out on horseback - a bizarre turn of phrase that presumably sounded funnier to somebody than the more sense-making "drink and ride." The leave-it-all-in approach leads to a nearly two-hour running time that looks all the more indulgent given how much invention Blazing Saddles packed into an hour-and-a-half.
"A Million Ways to Die in the West," a Universal Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "strong crude and sexual content, language throughout, some violence and drug material." Running time: 116 minutes.
MPAA rating definition for R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.