I didn’t try to count all the ways you can die in Seth MacFarlane’s Old West. But he gives us a hell of a lot of them. You can have your skull crushed by a giant block of ice, for example. You can be shot for no reason. You can be gored to death by a wild bull. A fast-moving tumbleweed can cut your throat. A surprise cameo by an A-list movie star may result in an expendable character meeting his maker. There are no rules in a world where stray jokes fly around as quickly and randomly as bullets.
Which means, of course, that like MacFarlane’s biggest success story, Family Guy, A Million Ways to Die in The West is essentially about nothing, a gigantic MadLib that needs more and more inappropriate adverbs to survive. It has stars and those stars play characters who do wacky Old West things, like be a black-hatted gunslinger (Liam Neeson) or a hapless and cowardly sheep farmer (MacFarlane) or an insufferable schoolmarm (Amanda Seyfried) or the town prostitute who’s also a devout Christian (Sarah Silverman) or the mustachioed proprietor of a shop devoted to mustache grooming who is also likely to break into Broadway-style song-and-dance to the tune of a song about mustaches (Neil Patrick Harris).
And yes, it’s a real song about mustaches written in the 19th century by Stephen Foster, the guy who wrote “Oh! Susanna.” And then there’s a joke about Stephen Foster for the people who don’t need to Google that name. That joke got a lot of laughs at my screening, which was largely populated by film critics whose jobs depend on a faking-it-well-enough-to-medium-legit level of cultural literacy. But it’s cool if you’re just there for the dick jokes. Lots of those to go around.
It also has a plot, sort of, which involves MacFarlane hating the West and hating how easily he could die there. He falls for Neeson’s wife (Charlize Theron) and she teaches him how to shoot so that he can duel Neeson and kill him. She hates Neeson so it’s fine. There’s a county fair and people die. There’s a bar brawl and people die. There’s that mustache song and people die. Neil Patrick Harris takes a dump in a hat. It ain’t Blazing Saddles.
That’s probably not fair. What can be Blazing Saddles? Who can top that? Nobody. But MacFarlane does his Mel Brooks-ian best to pile body function gag on top of witty absurdism on top of gory slapstick on top of race-based bad taste. It’s funny all the way through – okay, not the times it grinds to a halt so MacFarlane can act lovelorn for Theron and for the romantic screen presence he should never ever ever ever ever again reach for because there are too many more well-crafted vagina gags that need homes – and if it lacks a target or any other reason to be, its existence is still going to make a lot of people laugh. I did. Any comedy that accomplishes that, regardless of its utter meaninglessness, is allowed to live.