Monday, August 12, 2013

Film Review: We're the Millers

Cards on the table: I have a strong aversion to the stoner genre.

Maybe its that I work in a high school where I can see the corrupting, or at the very least corrosive effects pot.  So the premise for the new stoner film, We're the Millers, was a tough sell.

In reviewing this movie it is impossible to get beyond its thematic schizophrenia regarding traditional family life and stoner culture.  The movie centers around David Clark (an hilarious Jason Sudeikis) as a loser pot dealer who lives like he's still in his college years even though most of the people his age have grown up to careers and families.  The movie tries to make him a "likable" drug dealer by keeping to a code of not selling to kids, that includes the 18-year-old latch key dork in his building Kenny (Will Poulter).  The two of them try to help a street kid, Casey (Emma Roberts), from being harassed by street punks, but he gets robbed by them of his entire stash and savings.  When his supplier finds out, David is forced to drive up a shipment of drugs from Mexico.  In order to do this, he gets his stripper neighbor Rose (Jennifer Anniston), Kenny, and Casey to pretend to me a loveably bland family: the Millers.  The plan is to use this subterfuge to cross over the border without suspicion.

On the plus side, the cast is great.  Sudeikis makes the most of his leading man status by cracking wise early and often to make him likable as all get-out.  Poulter, who is probably most recognized as Edmund from the 3rd Narnia movie, also infuses his character with such goofy earnestness that lights up his scenes.  Anniston layers her humor with a lot of rage.  Her Rose hates her life, she hates that she's a stripper, and she hates that she's broke.  That venom bubbles over hilariously at Sudeikis, with whom she has a wonderful love/hate chemistry.  Roberts acts as the cynical gadfly, but it is fun to watch those layers slowly peal off as she enjoys her fake family a little too much.

The hijinks are outrageous and often hilariously vulgar.  For example, Luis Guzman has a small part as a Mexican cop who shakes down the "Millers" for a payoff, either money or something... more intimate.  David casually tells Rose to take one for the team, but then the cop reveals that he would instead prefer more manly contact.  Rose then throws the David's words back at him.  The situation continues to escalate with more and more shock laughs.

Now, I don't have a problem with vulgarity in general, as long as it is intelligently used.  I never was a huge fan of the American Pie series because their gross out humor was shallow and evaporated once the shock wore off.  We're the Millers actually has some wit behind it and I laughed often during the film.  But is this a good movie?

The problem with answering that is the movie's thematic problem.  The movie is about a drug dealer using others to become a drug trafficker.  The drug trade is an ugly, life ruining business, that the movie goes out of the way to soften the characters.  David is forced to do this by more evil people.  Rose is only doing this because she quit stripping and has been evicted.  And the upper management of the drug cartel are shown to be horrid people.  But middle people like David, and the actual act of smoking pot is given a pass.

The movie's biggest problem is how it views the traditional family.  David chooses a caricature of the nuclear family because he sees it as the essence of lameness.  They encounter a red-state whitebread family on the road played by Nick Offerman and Katheryn Hahn and their geek daughter Molly C. Quinn.  They are portrayed as bland losers who have no spice in their lives.  But they are at their heart kind.

Throughout the movie David has to take the role of "dad" to Kenny.  And Rose tries to steer Casey towards good decisions like a mom (which Casey grows to like).  The movie clicks and is most likable when the characters stumble onto the joys of ordinary family life.  But the film keeps this ideal at arms length and continually ridicules it.  This isn't just a light-hearted ribbing.  It mocks the nature of simple family life while yearning for it.  Because of this, the characters never get to really and truly grow to the place the story is taking them.  The main characters are "too cool" to fully commit.

This unsatisfying thematic conflict leaves an awkwardly bad aftertaste after viewing We're the Millers, despite the genuinely funny moments to be had.

2 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.

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