Saddles that should blaze in A Million Ways to Die in the West only spit-sizzle, so Mel Brooks is still king, and it's good to be that.
The comparison isn't even close. Seth MacFarlane's frontier farce neither rips nor roars, a surprisingly flat-footed followup to his audacious debut Ted. As director and writer, MacFarlane appears to have forgotten everything about cinematic standards of pacing, characterization and meaningful smut, resulting in an encore that's slow, sketchy and dumb-dirty.
A Million Ways to Die in The West probably wasn't a good idea after Blazing Saddles dropped the mic on frontier farce 40 years ago. Maybe the idea is all MacFarlane had, overestimating what could be made up on the fly then fixed in post-production. But it is curious to see a performer so adroit at musical satire wasting a gamer like Neil Patrick Harris at a hoedown dance with a jokeless song. Such miscalculations of timing and material are common in MacFarlane's movie.
That list of missteps includes MacFarlane casting himself as meek sheep rancher Albert Stark, looking far too contemporary yet not intentionally for laughs, as Brooks did with Cleavon Little. MacFarlane is simply there, dripping irony, with a bland face to stump a caricaturist or anyone seeking a range of expression. Albert's cowardice is the film's driving force; his heroism will be its overdue ending.
Slow pacing with few jokes filling the lapses are constant problems, beginning with languorous shots of Monument Valley begging for sight gags to set a tempo. The flabbiest example is a lengthy scene introducing the chief villain (Liam Neeson) and his wife (Charlize Theron), Albert's eventual romantic interest. The scene is played almost entirely straight, with a single sarcastic remark as its closest thing to a joke. Allowing minutes to lapse between laughs is no way to run a comedy, as someone who excels at 22-minute television like Family Guy should know.
There are nuggets to be mined from MacFarlane's folly, including an amusing but stunted turn by Harris as an elitist fop named Foy, owner of the town's mustachery, servicing real men's facial hair needs. Sarah Silverman briefly gets her raunch on as an eager prostitute saving her boyfriend (Giovanni Ribisi) for marriage. Among MacFarlane's friends dropping by for cameos, Bill Maher fares best as a standup cowtown comedian, one of the movie's fast-and-loose anachronisms.
Another positive is Joel McNeely's faux Bernstein musical score, lending an authentic soundtrack to Michael Barrett's cinematography, lovingly derivative of golden era cowboy flicks. When the jokes are scarce, this can pass as a honest-to-John Ford Western.
There are funny, fleeting bits leaving room for more, like a wayward sheep unsheared so long that he's a shapeless cotton swab bouncing off walls. Sheep are funny. Albert has dozens. Use them. Same goes for saloon brawls (note: snapping bones and gouged arteries aren't the only possible punchlines) and peyote parties. One sight gag actually out-Mongos Blazing Saddles, proving MacFarlane can do it. Apparently only once.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.