The trailer for “We’re the Millers,” a late summer comedy offering starring Jason Sudeikis and Jennifer Aniston, is misleading. It promises familiar comedy staples in the form of “hapless criminal” capers and “awkward virgin” jokes, as well as, of course, one or two stripteases from Aniston. And the movie delivers all this. But what the trailer doesn’t show – and what the insipid and uncomfortable “why you should watch this movie” sketch actually makes seem unlikely – is how funny and effective the rest of the movie is.
Imagine that a friend from college – not your best friend but a close friend, a wisecracker in the style of a Roman candle, who’s as witty as a Wilde character but won’t amount to much – never gave up selling weed. This is Sudeikis’ David Clark, the film’s anti-hero, anti-father, anti-everything. Then saddle him with a $46,000 debt to eccentric pot-dealing, ice-sculpting, Orca whale-buying billionaire Brad Gurlinger (played with and without restraint by Ed Helms), and place him in a low-rent apartment near a cheap stripper named Rose (Jennifer Aniston), the promised and conveniently parentless awkward virgin Kenny (Will Poulter) and a spunky “gutterpunk” Casey (Emma Roberts).
When a passing impulse of compassion for the two younger misfits finds him on his knees “getting rolled by the cast of Cats,” as David says, with his weed and his life savings gone, he agrees to smuggle “a smidgen – and a half” of the herb back across the Mexican border for Brad.
As comedy premises go, this one’s not bad – certainly better than “washed up, directionless comedians adjusting to life with spouses and children” (looking at you, “Grown Ups 2”). And this one allows the cast a lot of flexibility. Many of the lines seem improvised, always a mark of good comedy (and the worthwhile blooper reel at the end supports this theory), and the film doesn’t rely (too) heavily on gags. Sudeikis and Aniston have an excellent silent scene. There’s good visual comedy throughout, and excellent one-liners – such as an Apple store putting Rose’s strip club out of business.
And Sudeikis, whose constant wisecracks feel almost like a quality standup show – or, one supposes, like a reunion with the almost best friend from college who hasn’t changed a bit – isn’t the only one having fun. The ensemble cast also gets to join in with several laugh-worthy jokes. It is in the situations in which the “Millers” dig themselves into a series of deeper and deeper holes, to the point where only ludicrous contrivances of plot can get them out, that the movie is at its best. Yes, a baby, which is actually a kilo of marijuana, being thrown into and destroyed by a sudden rush of traffic on what was before a silent stretch of backcountry road, all in front of a DEA officer, seems a little bit a stretch. But it doesn’t seem stale, or bear the stretch marks of a writer writing him or herself out of a corner: it’s unhinged, improvisational (whether the moments were improvised or not) and charming enough to erase the improbability.
And then, for the high-minded, the movie may be viewed as a political satire. There’s a nice jab at the TSA, and, after all, the film is about sneaking two metric tons of marijuana across the U.S.-Mexican border. And the barely functional Millers actually accomplish this. All while a border safety officer apologizes, waves them on, and fires blindly at fleeing Mexicans.
And then of course there are the character arcs: the very point of all theatrical performance, with the exception of Beckett and his ilk. As one can imagine, the fake family becomes a real family, and hope and affection, like tender green shoots of cannabis, grow up out of their new family garden.
Of the four, Aniston plays her part with the greatest nuance. Sudeikis is funny but he isn’t always convincing; and Roberts’ part seems a tad underdeveloped. Poulter deserves credit simply for being the butt of so many horrifying jokes – he plays the straight man well. But the characters change. Contrived though they may be, these several transformations, following the characters from dysfunctional and self-absorbed to loving and willing to sacrifice for one another, leave the viewer undeniably charmed, so that when the finale rolls around – and this is by far the most absurd plot device in the film; – the viewer has grown fond enough of the “Millers” not to care. We accept them, contrivances and all, like a weird kind of family.
“We’re the Millers”
Three stars (Out of four)
Starring Jason Sudeikis, Jennifer Aniston and Emma Roberts. 110 minutes. Rated R for crude sexual content, pervasive language, drug material and brief graphic nudity. Opens today.