Art Strieber—Universal
May 22, 2014 6:41 AM EDT

We get the summer blockbusters we deserve. Hollywood wants sure things, and what, now, could be surer than superheroes, sequels and Seth MacFarlane? MacFarlane, 40, is the town’s trusted oddball, the only one allowed to make something big yet unusual. Hence A Million Ways to Die in the West, which is set in Arizona in 1882 and stars Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Amanda Seyfried and MacFarlane himself, who directs his live-action debut. It opens May 30.

MacFarlane has captivated millions with Family Guy and has lots of other shows in his stable. But his biggest coup was Ted, the summer 2012 movie he directed, co-wrote and co-starred in, as the voice of a boorish teddy bear come to life, alongside Mark Wahlberg. Ted was MacFarlane’s first whack at the big screen, and it made $549 million. Hence, again, the western.

“The comedy-western is not a historically profitable genre in Hollywood, Blazing Saddles aside, so we did get a few raised eyebrows,” MacFarlane says. “But thanks to Ted, it was something that didn’t really hinder us.”

He and his co-writers, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, stumbled on the idea during final rewrites for Ted. They watched Clint Eastwood’s Hang ‘Em High and realized they shared a love for the cinematic Old West, its dry colors and triumphant scores. An original screenplay followed. One central comic premise animated the thing: Man, wouldn’t it have been awful to live in the West?

MacFarlane hits this point with an extended monologue early in the movie and again in an interview with TIME: “It seems like it would be the most miserable place to exist. It’s hot, there’s a ton of disease, with, like, one restaurant in town and one store that sells 12 things. You’re either afraid for your life or bored to death. In some ways, it was an idea explored on Deadwood.” But, he notes, nowhere else.

So MacFarlane dumped a cast of characters with 2014 accents and sensibilities into the Old West. He plays Albert, a shoddy sheep farmer who still lives at home and gets dumped by Louise (Seyfried) on account of duel-related cowardice. She then takes up with Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), a mustachioed purveyor of all manner of mustache-related products. Albert finds himself alone, drunk and despondent, counseled at first only by the whimsically sexless couple Ruth (Sarah Silverman) and Edward (Giovanni Ribisi). Then Anna (Theron), a mysterious, confident, comely newcomer, picks him up and brings him back to life. Only later does he find out she’s married–and to Clinch (Neeson), the most feared stickup artist in the West. There is no ride into the sunset; he must battle for control of his town.

The movie has all the gross-out funny bits found elsewhere in the MacFarlane oeuvre. Bodily fluids and other emissions make recurring appearances (you may laugh, you may cringe), and supporting characters die in plenty of guffaw-grubbing ways. But MacFarlane has, to judge by his output, drawn a firm line between his two preferred mediums: the TV shows might be cynical, but the movies have big, bloody hearts. “I’m as sentimental a person as you will find in the town of Hollywood,” he says.

Perhaps he considers this sentimentality necessary to give a film real heft, or maybe he adds it to insulate his films from the charges of frivolity that dog his cartoons. Either way, he wants to be more than fart jokes.

So is he? The movie raises the question but doesn’t answer it affirmatively, with a love story reliant on the seductive powers of a male lead seemingly too wry to be pitied and too hapless to charm. What kind of gal, anyway, is as game as this one? “I’m a little cocky, but I got great tits,” Anna announces, just as she meets the downtrodden Albert. What ever could she see in him? Then you remember: Whether it’s Hollywood or Old Stump, Ariz., this is Seth MacFarlane’s town now.

This appears in the June 02, 2014 issue of TIME.

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