The much-maligned new comedy A Million Ways to Die in the West is actually pretty funny in spots. But it’s very strange. It’s an affectionate western homage, a mash-up western, a western pastiche. That’s not odd. What’s odd is that it’s an homage to a parody, and paying tribute to a spoof is just weird.
The film that cowriter/director Seth MacFarlane is evoking and celebrating here is Mel Brooks’s 1974 Blazing Saddles—the first full-length genre spoof, a kind of potty-mouthed extension of a skit from the then-popular Carol Burnett Show (complete with Burnett’s signature male farceur, Harvey Korman, in a key role).
It is little noted, but still true, that Blazing Saddles was one of those movies that changed the way Hollywood worked. It was, at the time, far and away the most successful comedy ever made, with a staggering $120 million gross ($550 million in present-day dollars). Adjusted for inflation, only two comedies since—Ghostbusters and Home Alone—have made more.
The full-length spoof has since become a Hollywood genre of its own. If there had been no Blazing Saddles, there would have been no Airplane! (1980), which in turn begat scores of other such parodies. An astounding 26 such movies have been released since 2010 alone, among them two of the five pictures in the Scary Movie franchise.
Perhaps even more important, Blazing Saddles paved the way for the blockbuster R-rated comedy. It remains the fourth-most successful R-rated film of all time (again, adjusted for inflation). Together with Animal House (1978) and the movies it spawned, Blazing Saddles steered the American motion-picture comedy away from depicting the sophisticated foibles of adults toward celebrating the sophomoric misbehavior of kids.
It therefore makes sense that MacFarlane would worship Blazing Saddles. It is, in some respects, a live-action cartoon, and MacFarlane adopted its slapdash, devil-may-care, anything-for-a-laugh style for his wildly successful animated TV shows, Family Guy and American Dad.
And Brooks’s decision to cast himself in Blazing Saddles (in two roles, as the randy Governor William LePetomane and as a Yiddish-speaking Native American) probably gave MacFarlane psychic permission to cast himself as the lead in A Million Ways to Die in the West, notwithstanding the fact that his previous work on screen had all been in voice-over. This was not a wise choice, though he’s perfectly fine in it, because it opened him up to critical evisceration on grounds of vanity. He should have manned up and hired another actor to kiss Charlize Theron.
The nominal plot: MacFarlane plays a sheep farmer named Albert in 1882 Oklahoma whose girlfriend dumps him. He is befriended by Theron, who decides to help him win his girl back. What Albert doesn’t know is that she is secretly the wife of the most vicious outlaw in the territory (Liam Neeson).
Blazing Saddles has a plot too—about a railroad company trying to steal the land that sits underneath a frontier village called Rock Ridge and the government’s effort to help the railroad company by sending a black convict to serve as the town’s sheriff. But in both films, the story is merely a clothesline on which to hang gags involving people who have entirely contemporary sensibilities (the sheriff in Saddles, MacFarlane and Theron here) being forced to confront a premodern world of casual violence and injustice.
The bright bits here involve the fact that “everything that isn’t you wants to kill you”: It’s more dangerous to visit the frontier doctor than just to lie there; every newfangled device has the potential to burn or maim.
There are inspired anachronistic conversations about how kids are destroying their brains by playing with rolling wheels, thus affecting their ability to concentrate. Albert’s rival for his girlfriend’s affections (Neil Patrick Harris) humiliates him by pointing out that he can afford “wrapped candies. Can you give her wrapped candies, Albert?”
A Million Ways is as ribald and scatological as Blazing Saddles, but nowhere near as daring. Not that Blazing Saddles is all that good a movie; it hits you over the head with its jokes, a lot of them old vaudeville routines that seemed tired in 1974. But it has its one spicy kick—its matter-of-fact, and therefore hilarious, depiction of casual racism, undercut and turned on its head by the fact that the black man at the center is smarter and cooler than anyone else on screen.