Dir: Seth MacFarlane. US. 2014. 117mins

A Million Ways To Die In The West

Seth MacFarlane has a knack for the bratty, off-kilter joke — the problem is that even when a gag lands, it does little to leaven his generally sour, juvenile comic tone. The director and star’s latest film, A Million Ways To Die In The West, has its share of memorable humorous bits. (A comedy with this many stabs at laughs can’t help but deliver some winning moments.) But despite a very likeable, breezy turn from Charlize Theron, this Western satire buckles under its creator’s self-indulgence and self-satisfaction.

Unfortunately, MacFarlane simply cannot stop congratulating himself for his own cleverness. Since the premiere of Family Guy, he has wielded a knowingly smug comic persona that dares the audience to be offended by his shamelessness and superiority.

A Million Ways To Die In The West, out May 30 in the US, is MacFarlane’s follow-up to his smash feature debut, Ted, which raked in almost $550m worldwide. Surrounded by a marquee-friendly cast that includes Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Neil Patrick Harris and (in a small role) Liam Neeson, MacFarlane is testing his audience appeal by playing the film’s main character. (In Ted, he merely voiced the titular teddy bear, although Oscar viewers will certainly remember his divisive hosting job from a year ago.) The first R-rated laugher to enter the marketplace since Neighbors, A Million Ways will have comedy fans to itself for a few weeks before it faces a major challenge in 22 Jump Street.

Set in 1882 in the sleepy Old West outpost Old Stump, Arizona, the film stars MacFarlane as Albert, a meek sheep farmer crestfallen that his girlfriend Louise (Seyfried) has dumped him for the town’s haughty, moustachioed Foy (Harris). But his depression is brightened when he meets Anna (Theron), a mysterious stranger who builds up his confidence and encourages Albert to win back Louise. What Albert doesn’t know, however, is that she’s married to the territory’s most terrifying gunslinger, Clinch Leatherwood (Neeson), who won’t take kindly to Albert’s friendliness toward his wife.

Written by MacFarlane and his Ted co-scripters Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, A Million Ways follows in the same spirit as Family Guy, the smart-ass animated TV series MacFarlane created that made his name. Mocking Western clichés, going for gross-out gags, throwing out bizarre pop-culture references, resorting to shock laughs in a pinch, A Million Ways won’t turn down a single opportunity to get a laugh — and the more lowbrow or inappropriate, the better.

MacFarlane enjoys thumbing his nose at sacred cows, purposely carting out offensive depictions of African slaves and Native Americans to irritate and provoke his audience into acknowledging the country’s racist past. But as in Ted, he doesn’t display much discipline in A Million Ways, piling on tiresome bathroom humour and sex jokes that aren’t nearly as subversive as he thinks. Story takes a backseat to random bits, and so A Million Ways has a herky-jerky rhythm, never really finding a groove and instead dependent on MacFarlane’s hit-or-miss comedic assault. (A whole subplot about a virgin and his prostitute girlfriend, played by Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman, goes nowhere and gums up the works each time it reappears.)

Spoiling the film’s funniest jokes would be unfair, but let it be said that the writers get the most mileage out of examining what an Old West town would be like if it behaved similarly to a 21st-century city. And in Neeson and Harris, MacFarlane has found the perfect actors to embody intentionally caricaturish characters — respectively, a black-hat-wearing murderer and a pompous dandy. Even when A Million Ways hits a particularly dry patch, MacFarlane’s rambunctious comic energy keeps the proceedings relatively lively, creating an unpredictable environment where we’re never quite sure where the next joke might come from.

Unfortunately, MacFarlane simply cannot stop congratulating himself for his own cleverness. Since the premiere of Family Guy, he has wielded a knowingly smug comic persona that dares the audience to be offended by his shamelessness and superiority. (In essence, if you don’t laugh at his oftentimes cruel and insensitive humour, you’re painted as the uptight one.) This tendency is all over A Million Ways, never more gallingly than when MacFarlane painfully draws out a sequence involving a character with explosive diarrhea. MacFarlane is an aggressively combative comic filmmaker — his inspired bits and his tedious, off-colour moments seem to spring from the same anarchic impulse — but his soulless pursuit of button-pushing laughs strips A Million Ways of heart. And that’s a liability when the film reaches for a sentimental resolution, which feels unearned.

With all this said, though, Theron gives one of her loosest, most playful performances as the tough-as-nails beauty who teaches wimpy Albert how to stand up for himself. Equal parts swagger and slowly revealed vulnerability, Anna begins to fall for this doofus, and while MacFarlane is limited as an actor — his doughy face isn’t particularly expressive — he has an easy rapport with Theron that makes their characters’ courtship, though unlikely, pleasant to watch. Theron, who won an Oscar for her harrowing turn in Monster, is mostly known for her dramatic work, but A Million Ways finds her agreeably showing a lighter side. Even when the film gets bogged down in its immature riffs, she brings enough wised-up spark to almost redeem the juvenile jokes piled around her like so many horse droppings.

Production companies: MRC, Fuzzy Door Productions, Bluegrass Films

US distribution: Universal Pictures, www.universalpictures.com

Producers: Scott Stuber, Jason Clark, Seth MacFarlane

Executive producers: Alec Sulkin, Wellesley Wild

Screenplay: Seth MacFarlane & Alec Sulkin & Wellesley Wild

Cinematography: Michael Barrett

Production design: Stephen Lineweaver

Editor: Jeff Freeman

Music: Joel McNeely

Website: www.amillionways.com

Main Cast: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Giovanni Ribisi, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman, Liam Neeson