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A million ‘yuks’ at cowboy myth

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    Seth MacFarlane plays sheep farmer Albert in “A Million Ways to Die in the West.”

Writer-director Seth MacFarlane gives you 10 jokes where other comedians give you one, so even if you don’t like five of them, you will still come out way ahead with "A Million Ways to Die in the West," an inventive and caustic comedy that really does look like the thing it’s mocking. A parody of the great Technicolor Westerns of the 1950s, it has the Monument Valley setting and a faux Western score — and even the graphics call to mind those earlier pictures.

It also has a point of view, one that’s buried under 

a cascade of gross humor, but it’s there nonetheless, and it gives the movie an extra edge. "A Million Ways to Die in the West" isn’t just a mock Western but an anti-Western, asserting modern values and modern life over life as lived in the harsh days of legend.

Rated: R
Opens Friday

Now in a sense, all comic Westerns do this, whether we’re talking about Bob Hope in "The Paleface" (1948) or Mel Brooks’ "Blazing Saddles." The comedy is always in the contrast between the main characters, who are always straight out of modern times, and those around them, homicidal lunatics at home in the lawless wilderness. But the awkwardness of the contrast — that is, the fish-out-of-water aspect of the hero — is usually the source for the comedy. Here it’s the contrast in values.

But in "A Million Ways to Die in the West," MacFarlane’s rejection of the Western legend is emphatic and funny. Early in the movie, talking exactly like a man from 2014 and with no concession to the period, he goes into a rant on why the West in 1882 is one of the worst places to live in all of history, noting everything from the violence and the threat of illness to the horrors of the cuisine. "That’s the American West," he concludes. "A disgusting, awful cesspool of despair."

He doesn’t belong there any more than we would, and that’s the connection MacFarlane builds with the audience. He plays Albert, a sheep farmer who can’t contain his sheep, a loquacious guy in a world of silent types, who has no violence in him though violence surrounds him everywhere. When his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him for a vain shopkeeper (Neil Patrick Harris), he really has no reason to stay in town, except to try to get her back.

"A Million Ways to Die" will be compared to "Blazing Saddles" for the way it cuts through movie cliche to show, in a comic way, the underside of Western life. But while Mel Brooks pointed out, for example, that eating beans probably made cowboys flatulent around the campfire, MacFarlane is after something beyond absurdity. He gets to the crux of the matter, that life in the West was cheap, at least as portrayed in the movies, and he tells us, often hilariously, that this is nothing we should celebrate.

Charlize Theron plays a newcomer to town who strikes up a friendship with Albert, a modern partnership of equals you don’t find in old Westerns. Quite unexpectedly, this is Theron’s best showcase since "Young Adult" three years ago, a role with lots of conflict and internal movement. For one thing, Anna (Theron) is secretly married to the most evil gunfighter in the West (Liam Neeson), who in comparison makes Jack Palance in "Shane" seem like a decent, misunderstood fellow. Meanwhile, on the lighter side, there’s Sarah Silverman, very funny in a thoroughly coarse role as the town prostitute.

Implicit in almost every Western — even the darkest ones — is the notion that America has lost something, some pioneer individualism, some rugged confidence, some independent spirit. "A Million Ways to Die" is MacFarlane’s way of saying no. Between the laughs, it’s a plea for the city over open space, the sophisticated over the homespun, life over death, and modernity over superstition. This makes it not only funny, but also refreshing. 

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