In a recent interview in Entertainment Weekly, Mel Brooks was asked about the famous bean-fuelled campfire scene in his classic western spoof Blazing Saddles -- specifically, how many farts were the correct number of farts for maximum laughs.
"Things didn't get exciting until the fourth or fifth one," Brooks recalls, "and the laughter began to diminish around the 12th fart, so I said, 'OK, cut it off at 12.' I did it kind of systematically."
Seth MacFarlane has no such filter. No, in his new goof on the western genre, he pushes right on past farts, well into explosive-diarrhea territory -- you know, really explores the comedic opportunities offered by bowel-related sound effects. Then, God help us, he moves on to graphic depictions of the result of this gastrointestinal distress.
A Fistful of Dollars? More like A Hatful of Poo.
But that's par for the course with MacFarlane, the creator of the Family Guy animated series, whose last film was the talking-bear buddy comedy Ted. Pushing things too far, going for the low-hanging fruit with a wink-wink acknowledgment that he knows that you know that he knows he's doing it is just his style, and sometimes it works.
However, even if you have a high tolerance for double-entendres, an even higher one for single entendres and enjoy seeing a man urinated on by a sheep, A Million Ways to Die in the West may prove a trying experience.
For one thing, it's two hours long. For another, it's not as inventive as Ted; it's harder to wring fresh laughs out of the Old West.
MacFarlane directed, wrote and stars in this needlessly profane, sporadically amusing, scatological mish-mash set in Arizona in the 1800s.
Dumped by his girlfriend Louise (a bland Amanda Seyfried), sheep farmer Albert (MacFarlane) is befriended by the new girl in town, the tough and beautiful Anna (Charlize Theron). Unbeknownst to him, she is the wife of Clinch Leatherwood, the most feared gangster in the territories.
When the meek Albert impulsively challenges Louise's new beau, Foy, to a duel, Anna takes him under her wing and teaches him how to shoot... and how to be a better man. Things get complicated when Clinch shows up in town and Albert has to put his newfound confidence to the test.
MacFarlane's portrayal of Albert is intentionally anachronistic, with modern vocabulary and mannerisms. This is clearly intended to be a joke, but it stops being amusing early on. Instead, it has the effect of making Albert seem like an observer of his own story instead of a participant. In several scenes, he says, "Holy s " (yes, McFarlane must have actually written himself that witty line four times) while just watching the action.
It also seems like an excuse for McFarlane not to have to work very hard. Luckily, he's surrounded himself with actors who do. As deadly sharpshooter Clinch, Liam Neeson oozes genuine menace. Sarah Silverman is gamely shameless as a prostitute who won't sleep with her fiancé because she's a Christian. Neil Patrick Harris is broadly amusing as the moustache-twirling villain Foy.
As usual, MacFarlane includes non sequitur look-at-me pop-culture references that evoke laughs more out of surprise or recognition than because they're really clever or funny. Harris utters the catchphrase of his How I Met Your Mother character, Barney. There's a pointless Back to the Future gag. Ryan Reynolds dies, for some reason. Albert and Anna eat a pot cookie, possibly so MacFarlane can act stoned.
It would be churlish not to admit that there are snort-worthy moments and some raw but real laughs, but the film doesn't live up to its title. The frontier in the 19th century truly was an absurdly violent and dangerous place and time to live. It might have been funnier to see a few more of those million ways; instead, we get a weirdly sentimental romance. And a baker's dozen of farts.