Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Cinema File #240: "We're The Millers" Review

I'm sure I'm just over-analyzing this, as it isn't exactly a new phenomenon especially in mainstream comedic film, but I'm beginning to wonder if 2013 might just be shaping up to be the Year of the Asshole. It just seems like every wide release comedy I've seen this year has presented me with unlikable characters that demand I either appreciate them for their unlikablility, or take part in an arduous journey to accept their redemption, either of which must take place before I can find any of it funny. If there was any genuine humor to be found in the first big comedy of the year Identity Thief, it was locked behind the impenetrability of the main character's unapologetic dickishness, but at least they tried (and failed) to reform her, which is more than I can say for the douche bags from The Hangover III, who I'm just supposed to love because they're jerks I guess. Hell, This Is The End took the idea of redeeming assholes to literally biblical proportions. Even when it was done well, as in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, it still feels like an unnecessary hurdle I'm expected to leap, when I could just as easily go watch Ghostbusters for the 100th awesome time and get four instantly likable protagonists for my trouble.

Guess what the first 500 pics on Google Image Search were.

This is the quandary I find myself in coming out of We're The Millers, the new film starring Jason Sudekis and Jennifer Aniston as a pair of bitter, hateful dregs who recruit two youths into a scheme to smuggle drugs across the Mexican border disguised as a happy nuclear family, sniping all the way. Now, I'm not saying that I can't enjoy main characters that are at first blush unsympathetic, I just don't like being pushed by the narrative to find their distasteful qualities endearing in their own right. I tend to think that to establish those types of characters requires a very specific structure for the universe in which they operate. Making the jerk-learns-his-lesson arc believable is a tough needle to thread, which leads me to the position that the unlikable protagonist really only works when the universe he's in is either just as amoral as he is, or better yet, actively working to punish him. Larry David's thinly veiled version of himself from Curb Your Enthusiasm is the perfect example of both of those structures combined to make something brilliant. We're The Millers is not brilliant. It's by no means terrible, and in a mostly lackluster year for comedies its sadly probably one of the better examples, but since I try not to grade on a curve, I can't in good conscience consider it worth recommending.

The biggest problem isn't even that I don't like the characters enough to find them funny, so much as I don't like them enough to care about their increasingly precarious plight. This is one of those movies where the main conceit is about the concealment of a lie that if revealed will cause everything to come crumbling down, where a series of close calls are mined for comic effect until inevitably the cat flies out of the bag in the third act and somehow, because its a comedy after all, everything still turns out alright anyway. With a few tweaks this can work in a drama or a thriller like Donnie Brasco or The Departed, but in a comedy, at least for me, it creates an air of tension that I find distracting from my attempt to engage with the humor (assuming there is any to engage with). The movie wants me to fall in love with these characters after starting at a deficit, but at every turn seems to want me to delight in their misfortune.  There were many lines or moments that I thought I might have otherwise found at least somewhat funny if I wasn't spending the whole movie pulled in different directions emotionally, and by the half way mark I just gave up trying to invest emotionally at all.

And its really a shame because as much as I don't think Jason Sudekis fits the role of a scraggly drug dealer any more than Jennifer Aniston passes as a stripper, I generally like both of them and have yet to really see a movie either of them have done that really exploits their talent. Consistent with my larger problem with the movie, the only two characters that really work are the two innocents, the fake son and the milquetoast DEA agent unknowingly on the family's trail, who both seem to be exaggerated examples of naive goodness to better contrast against all the scum. This is one of those movies where one performance by someone other than the main character steals the show so quickly and so thoroughly that you almost instantly want the movie to be about him instead of all the losers you've been saddled with. Parks and Recreation's Nick Offerman plays Don, a salt of the Earth Christian tourist who happens to be a Drug Enforcement Agent on forced vacation for being too tough on drug smugglers and is only happy to help the seemingly happy family of secret drug smugglers when their RV filled with stolen Mexican pot breaks down. I'm trying to think of a joke in the movie that I laughed at that didn't involve his character, but at the moment I'm drawing a blank.

We're The Millers is one you can probably safely skip if you haven't already. I laughed or at least smiled at about 30% of it, but even when I was laughing, the whole thing just left a bad taste in my mouth. One odd thing I noticed is that the thing you think the movie should be about actually happens in something like the first half hour. Because the main reason these disparate characters have gotten together to form this ruse is all centered around the need to cross the Mexican border unnoticed, one would think that that fateful moment would be a goal worthy of saving for the third act, but weirdly enough it happens rather smoothly fairly early on. They get in and out of Mexico largely without a hitch, and all the wacky mishaps and awkward misanthropy happens in America on their way back to finish the deal. That's fine I guess, except that after that point, there's very little reason for these people to stay together and maintain the fiction that they like each other. There are artificial, incidental reasons that crop up, but overall no real reason why they don't just decide to stop acting like a family the minute they successfully make it back to the states. I know the point is that they start out as strangers but become more like the fake family they're pretending to be, but even as you see that schmaltz coming a mile away, it never feels earned and I just want to go back to maintaining my own fiction that I've been watching the Don The DEA Agent movie all this time.

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