By Piya Sinha-Roy
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A town fair, a block of ice, and even the doctor are just some of the "Million Ways" to meet one's demise in the American Old West, as "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane lends his raunchy humor to parody the harsh conditions of life on the frontier.
"A Million Ways to Die in the West," out in U.S. theaters on Friday, is written and directed by MacFarlane, who also plays Albert, a hapless sheep farmer who is dumped by his girlfriend, befriends a mysterious newcomer and is challenged to gun fights.
Set in Arizona, 1882, the film is both a homage to and spoof of the traditional Western cowboy films. It features alcohol, drugs, raucous violence, a toe-tapping musical number and the same cheeky irreverence and bawdy comedy with touches of social commentary that MacFarlane has become known for in "Family Guy" and his first film, 2012's R-rated comedy "Ted."
"I wondered if there was some sort of hybrid between the tone that this movie sets and something that actually breathes as a western novella of sorts, and it was an experiment," MacFarlane told reporters at a press conference for the film.
Until recently, MacFarlane had focused his career behind the camera, writing, producing and voicing a large portion of the main characters in his Fox shows "Family Guy" and "American Dad." But after hosting the Oscars in 2013, the actor has become a more recognizable face.
"A Million Ways" sees MacFarlane playing his first live character role in film after voicing the pot-smoking, foul-mouthed lovable bear in "Ted."
He was aided, he said, by leading lady Charlize Theron, who exercises her comedy chops as Anna, the beautiful gun-slinging newcomer who takes Albert under her wings.
"The idea of doing something that's pitched in this very unusual way of a comedy western situation and (Seth) at the helm was very intriguing," the Oscar-winning actress said.
"A Million Ways" embeds cameos and throwaway pop culture references that will especially appeal to fans of MacFarlane, such as an appearance from "Back to the Future" character Doc Brown with his time-traveling DeLorean car.
"We thought we want to keep this more or less the real world, with some exaggerations of Arizona in 1882 so we're not going to fill it with pop culture references," MacFarlane said.
"But then while we were filming, we thought we could explain this away because it's a time machine and it was just something that turned out to be such a crowd pleaser."
Pleasing the critics might be a little harder, as reviews have been mixed, with the film earning a score of 50 out of 100 on review aggregator Metacritic.com. Variety's chief film critic Scott Foundas called it a "flaccid all-star farce."
The film, produced by Comcast Corp-owned Universal Pictures, is projected to earn $25 million in its opening weekend at the domestic box office.
(Reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy; editing by Patricia Reaney and Sofina Mirza-Reid)