Monday, August 12, 2013

We're The Millers

Pot Pie

By Melissa Agar

We’re The Millers (WB, 2013) – Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber. Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Jason Sudeikis, Emma Roberts, Will Poulter, Ed Helms, Nick Offerman, & Kathryn Hahn. Color, 100 minutes.

I recently read a behind-the-scenes book about Saturday Night Live. One of the theories that the authors of the book put forward dealt with the idea of the early SNL cast, particularly the men, revolutionizing comedy by giving us patently unlikable heroes – flawed, often loathsome people that we still rooted for and liked despite their very loathsomeness. I thought of this concept frequently throughout We’re the Millers, a raunchy road trip comedy whose protagonists are an unapologetic drug dealer and a stripper. Like the characters given to us in the 1970s by Chevy Chase, John Belushi, and Bill Murray, David (Sudeikis) and Rose (Aniston) are characters who exist in a darker space and seem to stumble into a sort of redemption rather than actively seeking it. That makes, of course, for one of the funniest movies of the year.

David Clark (Sudeikis) is a successful Denver pot dealer, a job he has held since college. He seems to specialize in servicing the needs of overstressed suburban moms and overworked executives. He has a well-stocked supply of product and a staggering wad of cash in his safe until he makes the mistake of interfering when his innocent neighbor Kenny (Poulter) tries to protect a homeless girl named Casey (Roberts) from a street gang. The gang robs Clark, putting him in a position of having to come up with the money he owes his supplier, old pal Brad (Helms) who has turned his college drug business into a multi-million-dollar corporation. Brad offers David a deal – go to Mexico and pick up a “smidge” of marijuana for him, and Brad will forgive David’s debt and pay him $100,000 in the process. David realizes that if he goes undercover as a family man (complete with family) he will be far less likely to attract attention from border patrol guards. So he recruits Kenny, Casey, and his stripper neighbor Rose (Aniston) to join him on the adventure. Of course, along the way, David and Rose begin to develop feelings not just for each other but also for their manufactured family as they elude scary drug lords and overbearing Middle American vacationers played hilariously by Offerman and Hahn. 

Sure, there are a lot of familiar elements thrown out there for us, and there are developments you can see coming from a mile away. You just know that the foursome is going to bond as a real family – something all four of them are lacking in their lives and desperately need. You know that things will not be smooth sailing once their rented RV is loaded down with marijuana. You know that David’s and Rose’s bickering masks their growing affection for one another. And yet, the film works on a lot of different levels, owing much to the charm of its lead.

Sudeikis has a sort of young Chase charm (before Chevy became a more obvious pompous blowhard). There are elements of the film that are reminiscent of Chase’s first Vacation film, and We’re the Millers rides that wave with its own particular spin. Over the past several years, Sudeikis has built an impressive body of onscreen work during his hiatus time from SNL, most notably his co-starring role in 2011’s Horrible Bosses. Now that he’s officially leaving SNL, Sudeikis has time to continue building his film resume, and there’s every indication that he may be on the road to becoming a significant film star. His good looks and roguish charm are enormously appealing and engaging, allowing him to step into the void that Vince Vaughn’s laziness in script choice of late has left at the cinema. It will be interesting to see what choices he makes now that he doesn’t have the crazy SNL schedule to contend with. If this movie is any indication, his fearlessness when it comes to playing a lovable jerk should carry him far.

Many critical eyes are on Aniston here, too. While Aniston has pretty successfully transitioned from small screen to big screen, her big-screen success is often linked more to her co-stars than her own ability to carry a film on her own. When the weight is put more on Aniston above the title, the films have faltered commercially though not necessarily creatively. (Wanderlust, one of last year’s biggest box office bombs, is a pretty terrific film. It’s just that no one saw it.) 

Although Aniston gets top billing here, there’s no doubt that this is Sudeikis’s film. Aniston supports her co-star well. She’s an ensemble player, which we learned from Friends, and that’s in evidence here. While her chemistry with Sudeikis works well here, equally solid is her work with Poulter and Roberts. Aniston’s overall fearlessness on film of late is admirable, although the argument could be made that it’s not really that fearless to, for example, do a steamy stripper routine when you have Aniston’s body. 

Ultimately, Sudeikis and Aniston are serviced by a script that is raunchy (there’s no doubt this is an R-rated comedy) and howlingly funny. It is not a comedy for everyone. I have a bit of a soft spot, though, for these sorts of comedies, going back to my youthful adoration of “frat boy” comedies like Animal House, Caddyshack, and Vacation. When comedies like this are done well, they are a total delight. What makes We’re the Millers well done is that much of the comedy is rooted in the characters and the journey they take. Despite their rough edges, these are characters we like and even grow to love, and the way that they face their obstacles heightens the comedy. While a lot of attention will be paid to Sudeikis and Aniston and the high stakes this film represents for them, young Poulter steals the film with his goofy, nerdy Kenny. Whether it’s rapping along to TLC’s “Waterfalls” or succumbing to a spider bite in a pretty uncomfortable location or getting kissing advice from his “sister” and “mother”, Poulter’s Kenny faces every moment in the film with gusto. His Kenny becomes the heart and soul of the film and drives large amounts of the comedy. 

It’s not been a kind summer for comedies. Outside of the sublime The Heat and the terrific This is the End, most of the major release comedies have been truly disappointing or downright non-existent. (The only major comedy release in July that wasn’t animated was Grown Ups 2.) We’re the Millers steps in to fill that void. It is a welcome relief to the action and superheroes we’ve been subjected to for the past month or so, and I, for one, was truly grateful for the opportunity to just laugh. 

Grade:  A-

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