Seth MacFarlane is a pleasant looking fellow with the black eyes and tight, toothy smile of a shark. Most sharks don’t care what we think of them, but this one does. MacFarlane’s physical appearance was never an issue when he was a behind-the-scenes force as the foul-minded creator of “Family Guy,” Fox’s sub-“Simpsons”/“South Park” animated comedy hit. He was emboldened, though, by 2012’s “Ted,” a rude, hilarious tale of a boy and his talking teddy bear that MacFarlane wrote and directed, and with his 2013 gig as Oscar host, he came out of the closet as a wannabe star. You can love him or hate him, but with the cheerfully terrible sagebrush comedy “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” it’s clear what MacFarlane is shooting for — nothing less than the chance to be both the Bob Hope and the Mel Brooks of his generation.
Be careful what you wish for. As a director, MacFarlane has taken a step back: This bloated comic western rambles on for 116 overlong minutes, and the slack editing leaves gaps a wagon train could ride through. Worse, it’s just not very funny. Gross, sure, and outrageous, and “shocking,” if that word even means anything anymore. But Hope had a knack for comic timing in movies like “The Paleface” — sometimes that’s all he had — and Brooks pushed cultural as well as scatological boundaries in 1974’s “Blazing Saddles.” All “A Million Ways to Die in the West” has going for it is enthusiasm, some inspired supporting players, and a fine cinematographer in Michael Barrett. Monument Valley has never looked more surreally beautiful.
It’s the people in it who seem small. MacFarlane plays Albert Stark, a sheep farmer in the flyspit town of Old Stump, Ariz., in 1882. He hates sheep and he hates the frontier, which he calls “a disgusting, dirty, awful cesspool of despair.” The only thing he loves is Louise (Amanda Seyfried), a stuck-up schoolteacher who jilts him in the movie’s opening moments for Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), the foppish proprietor of the town’s Moustacherie.
That’s one of the good ones — Harris has fun behind his absurdly waxed facial fur — and so is the running title gag in which various townspeople die in gruesome, random ways (ice block, photo flash, runaway bull — I’m not giving away anything that’s not in the trailer). When Albert points out the town’s mayor, who’s been lying dead in the street for three days, you briefly sense a larger farcical vision at work. The Old West isn’t where civilization pulled itself together — it’s where it completely fell apart.
The script by MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, and Wellesley Wild — is that an actual name? Does he have a brother called Methuen? — quickly squanders the comic goodwill. With the arrival of Anna (Charlize Theron), a sharp-shooting beauty hiding her relationship with the villainous Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), “A Million Ways to Die in the West” tries to turn Albert into a snarky but true-hearted romantic lead and western hero. Theron is game and her scenes with MacFarlane are amusingly chummy, but there’s nothing about this plotline that doesn’t feel like a retread, and MacFarlane, I’m sorry to report, still seems like the funniest guy in the writers’ room rather than a genuine movie star.
You find yourself wanting to spend more time with Harris’s Foy, or with Albert’s friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and Edward’s fiancée Ruth (comedian Sarah Silverman). He’s a churchgoing virgin, she’s the town whore, and their relationship is blissfully bipolar, with Ruth breezing downstairs after committing depraved acts to chastely bill and coo with her boyfriend. The role’s a perfect fit for Silverman, whose onstage schtick balances sweet and sleazy; I say give these two their own movie.
Elsewhere, “A Million Ways to Die in the West” huffs and puffs to seem daringly outrageous and too often settles for being merely gross, unless your idea of cutting-edge comedy is a close-up of a sheep’s penis urinating on the hero. The script’s casual profanity has no shock value to it anymore — it’s just how dull people talk to each other these days. And when MacFarlane tries to one-up the farting contest in “Blazing Saddles” with a diarrhea sequence, the contorted lunacy of Neil Patrick Harris pooping into a hat is capped with a truly needless close-up of the results. You can’t do that on television — for a reason.
Look, calling Seth MacFarlane vulgar is like complaining that Mike Tyson hits people — it’s just what he does. But the low comedy of, say, the “South Park” boys is yoked to a higher critique of the way the world works (or doesn’t) that gives the jokes a lasting sting. “A Million Ways to Die” gets off one or two racial/social gibes that detonate on that secondary level — and there’s one throwaway ’80s movie reference that’s a gutbuster — but otherwise the movie’s content to smear excrement on a beloved genre as inoffen-sively as possible. Like so many funny-men before him, MacFarlane aims for the big time and makes a classic mistake: He wants us to like him.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.