Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Not a Family Movie: WE'RE THE MILLERS

The runtime of We’re the Millers is listed as 110 minutes, but I don’t know what takes so long. It’s a fast-paced movie that’s all plot, dragging along gags and leaving the characters lagging behind. It’s a high concept comedy that leaps so quickly into its concept that we’ve barely met the characters before they’re already completely into the movie’s central scenario. I have no idea how this movie could’ve possibly filled up nearly two hours of screen time. It’s in a constant rush, terrified of downtime or a single thought beyond the overpowering demands of its plot mechanics, which are at once incredibly simple and yet somehow in constant need of further propulsion. The plotting is so brisk and constant that the movie feels paced, especially in its relentless opening minutes, like a series of its own trailers or a playlist of connected YouTube videos set to autoplay. That it literally starts with a string of YouTube videos (double rainbow, surprised cat, etc.) under the opening credits is an odd choice that nonetheless sets up the fast pace.

With that opening paragraph, I’ve probably taken more time getting to the main concept that the movie does. Dave (Jason Sudeikis) is a low-level pot dealer whose stash and cash is stolen by a gang of hoodlums. His supplier (Ed Helms) offers to wipe clean the debt and even throw in a few extra thousand dollars if he goes down to Mexico and smuggle back a “smidge of marijuana.” Dave doesn’t have much of a choice, so he agrees. Looking no further than his front steps, he sees a clean-cut family in an RV and decides that’d be the perfect disguise to sneak a bunch of pot across the border. He recruits the woman in the apartment next door, a freshly evicted stripper (Jennifer Aniston), to play his wife, and two neighborhood teens, an abandoned boy (Will Poulter) and a homeless girl (Emma Roberts), to play their kids. They may not be related, but they’re sure going to try their hardest to pass as a family. “The Millers” are going on a road trip.

It’s a great concept and I don’t blame screenwriters Bob Fisher and Steve Faber (of Wedding Crashers) and Sean Anders and John Morris (of Hot Tub Time Machine) and director Rawson Marshall Thurber (of Dodgeball) for rushing there as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, reducing the characters to types leaves little room for the movie to maneuver as it plugs them into gag-filled scenarios that attempt to wring laughter out of who the characters are instead of what they do. There’s an underlying mean-spirited judgment upon these characters because of their types, jokes that appear to find Aniston’s character inherently funny because she’s a stripper, Poulter funny because he’s a lonely overeager goof, Roberts funny because she’s homeless. Similarly, the unhappy murderous Mexican supplier (Tomer Sisley) who becomes a villain chasing them is a plot development that’d play a lot better if the movie didn’t play up Mexican “otherness” as inherently intimidating. One scene lingers on Aniston during a routine, but breaks the fourth wall with a wink. That the film knows it’s being exploitative doesn’t make it okay. Other scenes play uncomfortably with homophobia in a similarly talking-out-of-both-sides-of-the-mouth tone.

This sense of judging its characters doesn’t mix well with the otherwise freewheeling permissiveness of their behavior as they try to avoid getting caught with the pot. But luckily the movie just barrels right on past by getting great mileage out of how appealing the cast is. I liked them, and by extension their characters. The central four have a core likability and the banter they’re given is often funny in interactions that are prickly but deep down affectionate towards each other. It’s a combination that does much to alleviate the notes that sit so sourly. Even though the movie doesn’t take them seriously as people, and sometimes the characters seem a little under-concerned about the stakes of it all, I found myself wishing them well anyways. The road-trip structure of the movie keeps things hurtling along quickly. If you can survive the opening barrage of rushed, choppy set-up, you might find the pay offs to be a bit more relaxed and amiably crude. It falls into a groove that’s works well, especially whenever an RV full of a seemingly squeaky clean family (parents Nick Offerman and Kathryn Hahn with daughter Molly Quinn) runs into our disreputable foursome and attempts some good old-fashioned Americana bonding over campfires and Pictionary. That couldn’t be a worse fit with the behavior of these four and their drug-smuggling ways. 

Though for all the inappropriate dialogue, crude sight gags, and shock gross out moments, it’s a movie that’s sneakily square. The selfish, marginalized members of this family slowly come to rely on one another to find safety, camaraderie, and financial stability. These things, the movie ends up arguing, come exclusively from the typically structured nuclear family. The appearance of being mainstream-society-approved good not only lets them get away with being bad, it ends up making them, if not good, at least better. Potentially exciting avenues of sharp comedy – like the comically aggressive border patrol, say – are dumped for the squishy sentimentality of the narrative trajectory. That the “Millers” come to actually care for one another is perhaps the only way to have a movie so otherwise dedicated to bad behavior go down so easily, and with a cast so likable, it was perhaps inevitable anyways. But it results in a movie with a cynical, ugly point of view that also desires of a return to familial stability and camaraderie. Weird.

But there’s a funny thing that happens to a problematic comedy when it can manage to be funny. The wholly mechanical plotting and sour aftertaste has enough situational escalation and likable archetypes that it snowballs into something that is entertaining at the time. I felt bad later about having fallen for it, but as it played I wasn’t unhappy to be there. I found myself pulled right along and reader, it’s my duty to report to you that I occasionally laughed. I could tell you that I had a bad time watching this movie, but the truth of the matter is that I didn’t. The speed that seemed so off-putting at first soon became an asset. The totally perfunctory characters that seemed simple plot constructs in a story that had a bit of a mean streak became, through the pleasant cast, easy enough to take. To make a long story short, the movie’s fairly entertaining provided you let it evaporate naturally before you think about its implications and contradictions for too long.

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