How nasty is the 1882 frontier in “A Million Ways to Die in the West”?

So brutal that a schoolmarm “got her throat slit by a fast-moving tumbleweed.”

So savage that the pastor ends his sermon, “God bless you for another week, and there is a mountain lion warning in effect.”

So ruthless that the ownership of the New York Times is consulting the script for tips on how to handle its next personnel decision.

I laughed more at Seth MacFarlane’s sendup of ’60s Westerns than I did at all the other comedies I’ve seen this year, combined. I even laughed as much as I did at “Noah.” MacFarlane is just passable as a leading man, but as a director and co-writer with two others, he has a wider comic imagination than “Blazing Saddles.” For every so-so gag, there are three genius ones.

MacFarlane, the “Family Guy” creator, plays Albert, an heir to the fast-talking cowards of Bob Hope and early Woody Allen movies: “I’m not the hero,” he says, defining the life of a comedy writer. “I’m the guy in the crowd making fun of the hero’s shirt.” He can’t believe he’s living in an era when a facial wound is treated by having a blue jay peck away the blood.

Equally exasperated is Anna (Charlize Theron), a sharpshooting cynic who strikes up a relationship with Albert without mentioning that her husband (Liam Neeson) is a desperado who kills indiscriminately.

Unlike a lot of wiseguy comedies, the movie provides ample opportunity for the supporting cast to be more than straight men: Neil Patrick Harris does nice work as a mustachioed snob who steals Albert’s girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried). She is starting to realize the range of possibilities now that “people are living to 35.”

Even better are Sarah Silverman and Giovanni Ribisi as a Christian couple who are waiting to get married before they have sex. He’s a virgin. She’s the skankiest hooker west of the Rio Grande.

Many of the requisite gross-out gags involve her professional life, and though I tend to reject bodily emissions humor, MacFarlane’s crew does find some surprising uses for it that fit the film’s absurdist, irreverent vibe. Warning: If they gave out triple-R ratings, this movie would have one.

“West” is a bit slowly paced and probably should have been trimmed by 15 minutes or so. Still, it’s easy to see why MacFarlane loves these jokes so much, he couldn’t bear to cut them. Even a third-act dream sequence that at first seems like filler does pays off, as do the random celebrity cameos (Ryan Reynolds’ is my favorite) and thrown-in cultural references that define “Family Guy” (and “The Simpsons”).

At his best, MacFarlane delivers funny new takes on the strangest aspects of frontier life — the weirdly stiff photos, the constant accidents, the shoddy medicine, the dances — and the movies about same. The score (by Joel McNeely) is a ringer for ’60s cowpoke epics, and MacFarlane has a brilliant tip on how to survive a saloon brawl. Through the eyes of a comic master, even boredom can be funny: In olden days, “there’s only, like, three songs, and they’re all by Stephen Foster.”


‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’ is a worthy Western
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