- - Thursday, May 29, 2014

“A Million Ways to Die in the West” is at once a deeply crude movie and a surprisingly sweet one. On the one hand, it is rife with the kind of maximalist scatological humor that has come to define a certain strand of R-rated, dude-friendly comedy over the last decade: There are unprintably foul jokes about every sexual and excretory function you can imagine — and probably a few you can’t.

The dialogue is built on layer upon layer of casual profanity. F-bombs fill spaces between words the way mortar fills the space between bricks. Sarah Silverman, a stand-up comic known for her gleeful comedic outrages, is in the cast, which should be all the hint you need that this is a movie indisputably committed to indecency and offense.

And yet it is just as equally committed to the formalized, almost ritualistic, rhythms of the contemporary romantic comedy. It’s a Western, sure, with all the necessary trappings, but mostly it’s a movie about a boy who meets a girl and falls in love.

In this case, the boy is a man, at least by age. The movie’s protagonist is geeky sheep farmer Albert, played by Seth MacFarlane, who turned 40 last year but seems to be playing someone in his late 20s. The film’s humor level, however, is rather more adolescent.

Mr. MacFarlane, who also directed the film and co-wrote the script, is the now-middle-aged enfant terrible behind the animated sitcom “Family Guy” and the 2012 teddy bear buddy comedy “Ted,” and he’s known for his smarmy cynicism and inventive vulgarity. If anything, he amps up the on-screen crass factor here — more than a few of the jokes seem designed to elicit an “eww, gross” rather than an LOL.

Albert’s love interest is Anna, played with grace and wit by Charlize Theron, who seems surprisingly game to participate in Mr. MacFarlane’s festival of gross-out juvenilia. Anna arrives in town just in time to be saved from a ridiculous bar fight by Albert, and they immediately strike up a friendship that eventually, and predictably, turns out to be something more. What Anna doesn’t tell Albert is that she’s already married to a notorious outlaw named Clinch (a gruff, funny Liam Neeson, riffing on his penchant for on-screen menace), who stays largely off-screen until the film’s final act.

The scene-to-scene particulars of the plot don’t matter as much as the characters: Giovanni Ribisi and Ms. Silverman show up in supporting roles as Albert’s best couple friends; Amanda Seyfried plays Albert’s girlfriend, who dumps him in the opening reel for Neil Patrick Harris’ foppish mustache magnate, Foy. Each of the supporting characters gets a single joke, more or less, with a few repetitions. Mr. Harris adds a few delightfully weird touches to his character and steals several scenes in the process.

But most of the movie is devoted to Albert and Anna, whose love builds slowly but surely as she teaches him how to shoot and they confer over the awfulness of living in the Old West and the myriad bizarre ways it can kill you (hence the title).

The movie’s rather sweet when it’s not too busy being disgusting — perhaps too much so. This overlong movie’s best gags are its random absurdities, and I wish it had followed its oddball instincts more than its romantic and vulgar impulses. It’s funny at times and repulsive at others, sometimes because it’s flat-out gross, but sometimes because it’s too earnestly saccharine.

★½

TITLE: “A Million Ways to Die in the West”

CREDITS: Directed by Seth MacFarlane; screenplay by MR. MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin AND Wellesley Wild

RATING: R for unprintable vulgarity and gross-out humor

RUNNING TIME: 116 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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