The genre is a strange, off-kilter hybrid. Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles,” for example, is a terrific comedy but not a very good Western; Brooks didn’t seem to care about the horse opera. But MacFarlane’s “Million Ways” has an equal affinity for both the laughs and the Western landscape.
Even if it’s not as warm or as constantly funny as MacFarlane’s feature directing debut, “Ted,” it’s a welcome lightweight among a summer season of graceless heavyweights.
Writer-producer-director MacFarlane also stars as Albert Stark, a sheep farmer in the town of Old Stump, Ariz. He frequently lists all the things he hates about the frontier of 1882, specifically all the things that can kill him.
Then, his girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried) — the one thing that makes his life bearable — dumps him. Just as he’s about to give up and leave town, he meets the charming and mysterious Anna (Charlize Theron), who knows how to shoot, and knows something about men.
Anna offers to train Albert’s trigger finger when Albert unexpectedly agrees to a shootout with Louise’s new beau, the mustachioed Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). The other boot drops when Anna’s husband, the notorious outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson) arrives in town.
Filming in New Mexico and Monument Valley — places where many great Westerns were shot — MacFarlane creates and utilizes a bold, colorful, open-air space. A rousing score by Joel McNeely and a couple of goofy songs help set the mood.
As with “Ted,” MacFarlane proves he has a gentle, genuine touch with actors, and draws out their best qualities.
Theron has never been so delightful in a movie, Harris is very funny, and Neeson looks like an honest-to-goodness cowboy. (He was also in the terrific, underrated Western “Seraphim Falls.”)
The filmmaker even finds a spot for legendary Cherokee Nation actor Wes Studi (“Geronimo: An American Legend”), helping the hero through a hilarious dream ritual.
If only “Million Ways” weren’t so long. There seems to be a trend to make summer movies as long as possible so audiences seem to get more for their dollar.
Running nearly two hours — “Blazing Saddles” was 93 minutes — the narrative hits a few dead spaces as the pace slackens or jokes fall flat in the dirt.
Though “A Million Ways to Die in the West” lacks the stuff of a classic, it has enough classical elements to recommend it. Let’s hope MacFarlane continues to fight for good guys everywhere.
A Million Ways to Die in the West ★★★
Starring Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Amanda Seyfried
Written by Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, Wellesley Wild
Directed by Seth MacFarlane
Running time 1 hour, 56 minutes