“Everything out here that’s not you wants to kill you,” incompetent sheep-farmer Albert Stark complains to his friends, and – as you might guess from the title – Seth MacFarlane’s black-farce western sets out to demonstrate as much. During the course of the movie we see people gored to death by a bull, crushed by a huge block of ice, blown up by an exploding camera-flash, poisoned by snake venom – and of course, shot. Plus we get to hear a few gory anecdotes. “Our old schoolmarm,” Albert recalls, “got her throat slit by a fast-moving tumbleweed...”
Besides the ubiquity of violent death, Albert (played by MacFarlane himself) has other woes. His self-obsessed girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) has dumped him for moustachioed dandy Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), and he’s much despised in the 1882 Arizona township of Old Stump for backing down from gunfights. But he finds consolation when the lovely Anna (Charlize Theron) roams into town and takes a shine to him. Only trouble is that, unknown to him, she’s married to the territory’s most lethal bandit, Clinch Netherwood (Liam Neeson, sporting an Irish accent you could cut with a shillelagh).
From its opening shots of Monument Valley, with Joel McNeeley’s score cheerfully pastiching everything from Bonanza to The Big Country, it’s evident that with his second feature (after 2012’s Ted) MacFarlane’s set out to crap on the entire sagebrush canon from a great height.
‘Crap’ being the operative word – this being MacFarlane, scatological jokes abound. As do sex jokes: one running gag concerns Albert’s friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and his fiancée Ruth (Sarah Silverman). Being Christians, they’re saving themselves for marriage – despite the fact that Ruth is the most popular hooker in town, turning at least 10 tricks a night. This not only allows Silverman to indulge in her practised sweet-faced potty-mouthed act, but lets Edward, once he finally beds her, describe the first lady-part as looking like “a firecracker wrapped in roast beef”.
Essentially, then, A Million Ways is a slim story bulked out to nearly two hours by a plethora of gags – and if you enjoy the sight of MacFarlane being pissed on by a sheep or NPH, his bowels sabotaged by a spiked drink, shitting in not one but two hats, you’ll love it.
But to be fair, not all the jokes are quite that crude; the occasional slipped-in movie reference – Back To The Future, Django Unchained – hits the spot and the pace rarely lets up. Chief weakness on the acting front is MacFarlane himself, who mostly hangs around looking awkward. Still, the rest of the cast more than make up for him, and Theron in particular is at her most appealing.
In the venerable tradition of Cat Ballou and Blazing Saddles, Seth MacFarlane’s comedy western boasts gags galore – some a lot cruder than others. But the hits outnumber the misses.