The executives at Warner Bros who green lit We’re the Millers must have thought the words coming from the screen writers mouths sounded an awful lot like the eternal whirring of an immortal counting machine. The marketability of an R rated comedy with the bankability of a feel good family movie? Where’s my top hat and tails? And Jeeves , polish my monocle! If only somebody took the time to just figure out how incompatible those two concepts were we might have been sparred this mess.
You can’t have a movie in which you strive for family togetherness and set it in a cloud of marijuana smoke. You can’t have a film in which a teenage girl finds self-esteem through a parental support system and have the mother of that support system get naked every five minutes. The audiences are incompatible. The parents who want to take their kids to see the hugging side of the movie aren’t about to let little Timmy and Tabitha be exposed to the more “mature” themes the raucous side of We’re The Millers has on show. And those who want to see Jens ass in a lacy pair of smalls don’t want Sudeikis’ moral softening getting in the way.
You could put these two things together if the film was written as a parody of sappy family mush, but when it comes to the story points that have to rely on sentimentality, the film wants you to take them all too seriously. This eliminates any sense of irreverence the film has worked so hard to create and destroys any chance it has anything remotely clever, original or interesting to say about family units in a progressive, 21st century landscape.
The balance between the two aspects is off too. The rowdiness of the comedy is clearly the dominant tone the creative team have favoured over the mawkishness of the developing, unconventional family. It makes the schmaltz even more unwelcome, the film treating it as an uninvited party guest getting in the way of all the fun. It gets little attention and the moments it does take up the screen feel like they belong to part of another, even lazier film. At one point the father figure has a gun pointed to his head and elects this moment to reel off the positive attributes of his newly adopted kin. Not only does this seem like an itemized list straight off the character sheet rather than a spontaneous realization, it’s at total odds with the tone of the character and stops the momentum of the scene dead in its tracks.
The mishandled plot is centred around a drug dealer (Jason Sudeikis) finding himself in debt to a drug kingpin (Ed Helms) after he and his neighbour (Will Poulter ) try to save a homeless girl (Emma Roberts) from getting mugged. Instead they mug him, taking away his money and his stash. To pay the kingpin back he must take a flight to Mexico, pick up an RV and smuggle millions worth of pot across the border. To avoid getting caught by the police he enlists those kids and Jennifer Anniston’s stripper to pose as his wife and children because families don’t get checked crossing the border.
Taking two kids (not particularly bright ones at that) on a drug haul across the border? Is there any part of that that doesn’t sound contrived to you? Now being contrived is not in itself a sin, almost all pieces of cinema feature that attribute somewhere in the plot. But it is only forgivable if the movie does an adequate job of distracting you from the aspects that make you go “what?! Hang on just a second!” And unfortunately there are plenty of seconds like these. Especially during the first act of the film where the writer and director seem to be just going through the motions, willing the film to hurry up and get on the road where the characters are trapped on an RV with one another and the real comic set pieces can begin. Nothing gels in that first twenty minutes and with sloppy cutting and lazy character set ups it feels more like forty.
Unfortunately, the characters you’re spending time that time with do nothing to make it go faster. Each one is antagonising and unlikable, either through the idiotic naivety of the son or the bitter, joylessness of everyone else. The film wants to exploit their un-likability for laughs but is unwilling to caricaturize them too much. Its stunts the laughs and leaves the audience devoid of any reason to care about them in spite of their obnoxiousness. As such it’s harder to laugh at the jokes and care about their stability as a unit. Take Sudeikis’s character for example. He’s a selfish, greedy arsehole but the film barely takes any advantage to use that trait for comedy, relying too heavily upon support characters for the punch lines. As a result he seems no more than a husk watching with little interest as craziness happens around him, meaning we have even littler interest in him.
We’re the Millers is ultimately a comedy that believes having outrageously unlikable characters is enough to make an audience laugh, but forgets to make them outrageous. It thinks it can iron out its flaws by providing several scenes of Jennifer Aniston in her underwear, hoping we’ll be too distracted to remember that we haven’t had a laugh in three scenes. But we don’t and the only member of We’re the Millers who escapes barely unscathed is Emma Roberts because I barely remember her being in it. Well done Emma. Well done.