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Tuesday, September 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 47.0° F  Fair
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In A Million Ways to Die in the West, Seth MacFarlane unbridles irreverent jokes on the frontier
Runaway imagination
Potential killers are everywhere.
Potential killers are everywhere.

Seth MacFarlane, creator of the anarchic cartoon comedy Family Guy, is Hollywood's barbarian at the gate. Right now he's kicking down the barriers that have trapped him in television animation. In addition to directing, producing and cowriting the live-action feature A Million Ways to Die in the West, he cast himself in the lead role. It's the first of many overindulgences, but somehow, none of these missteps are grievous enough to scuttle the film.

Playing Albert Stark, a nebbish sheep farmer on the 1882 frontier, MacFarlane takes aim at the mythos of the unsullied West. Like a Woody Allen rant about the dangers lurking in the countryside, this film takes its title from Albert's constant observations about the multitude of hazards that befall ordinary men on the frontier. The dangers aren't just posed by gunslingers and poisonous snakes: Death can come innocently from tumbleweeds, bad medicine, a block of falling ice or even flatulence. When his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him for the foppish, well-to-do proprietor of a mustache emporium (the reliably amusing Neil Patrick Harris), Albert astutely decides he'll be better off moving to San Francisco. Then Anna (Charlize Theron), the wife of a legendary gunslinger, comes to town and convinces Albert to stick around for another week. This provides him with some happy moments as the two of them evade various deathtraps.

MacFarlane's approach to comedy has always been "Throw everything at the wall and see what sticks." The jokes in A Million Ways are so plentiful that a substantial number of them are bound to succeed. Though the movie is destined appear in double bills with Blazing Saddles, the pinnacle of Western spoofs, it's the weaker of the two. MacFarlane's id runs rampant with no signs of a superego to rein it in.

Theron, meanwhile, brings a rarely seen comedic zest to her character, even though her role is underwritten. Also underwritten are the roles of Albert's best friends Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and Ruth (Sarah Silverman), whose relationship is based solely on jokes pertaining to Edward's virginity and Ruth's status as the most popular whore in town. Hallucinations after ingesting a pot brownie are needless distractions, as are one-joke cameos by the likes of Christopher Lloyd, Gilbert Gottfried and Bill Maher.

A Million Ways does have the best explosive-diarrhea-in-the-middle-of-the-street scene since Bridesmaids. I don't know whether to categorize that as a dubious distinction or a cultural trend, but MacFarlane's comedic voice comes through loud and clear. Nevertheless, there's an excess of excrement, both literal and metaphorical, in this film. I'm not saying it isn't funny, but rather that MacFarlane's creative talent would benefit from more focus and judicious editing.

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