With his film career picking up, it was only a matter of time before Jason Sudeikis, like so many before him, made a break from Saturday Night Live, the show that had made his name. Best known for his smirking deadpan, Sudeikis' comedy chops are undeniable, but how does his experience of playing sketch characters transfer over to the big screen? Reuniting him with Horrible Bosses costar, Jennifer Aniston - who, almost a decade on is still trying to throw of her good girl image from Friends - and the up-and-coming Will Poulter (Wild Bill) and Emma Roberts (Scream 4), We're The Millers is a film with a lot of heart but a dearth of laughs.
Sudeikis plays layabout stoner David Miller, a bachelor in his late 30s who still makes a living selling pot to stressed-out businessmen and bored housewives. As a chance encounter with a former high school classmates pointedly spells out for us, David could disappear tomorrow with no one to miss him. However, when his stash gets ripped off, David is forced by his yuppie drug lord boss (Ed Helms of the US version of The Office and The Hangover trilogy) to transport "a smidge" of dope back across the Mexican border. Knowing the likelihood of him being stopped and searched as a single male, David recruits his neighbors Rose (Aniston), a pissed-off stripper, and Kenny (Poulter), an unattended teen, as well as "street urchin" Casey (Roberts) into posing as his family.
As is the trend in most recent mainstream comedies, the humor in We're The Millers is grounded in desperation and degradation: David wipes out while jumping off a fire escape, trying to escape from a knife-wielding robber, while Rose is forced to provide lap dances for creepy guys with hook hands and has a vacuous "colleague" nicknamed Boner Garage. There's the occasional funny moment - like Sudeikis' impromptu Bane impersonation - but these smack of talented improv as opposed to the actual script (written by the duo behind The Wedding Crashers and one of the team from Hot Tub Time Machine). While the "jokes" come across as forced and flat, the most interesting part of We're The Millers is in its treatment of family and how we're all capable of reinventing ourselves.
Having inadvertently stolen enough marijuana "to kill Willy Nelson" from the Mexico cartel, We're The Millers is at its best when it dares to be sweet. We all know that this makeshift family will learn to love and appreciate each other, but, after all the meanness, such moments are refreshing, touching even. Poulter is great as the flustered but chivalrous Kenny, a million miles away from his breakout role as Eustace Scrubb - a boy so horrid he almost deserved the name - in The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader three years ago. Treading the border between endearing and annoying, Poulter gets arguably the film's first good-natured "bit", singing along to TLC's Waterfalls in front of his bemused family. It's shamelessly cheesy but merits at least a giggle.
We're The Millers frustrates because, for every instance of the above, the film feels obliged to balance it out with uncomfortable weirdness. In one scene, David provides a fictional account of how he and Rose got together, but the story is filled with genuine sentiment ("She just looked beautiful"; in another, however, he tries to whore out Kenny to a corrupt Mexican cop played a cameoing Luis Guzman (Boogie Nights). Nick Offerman (Ron Swanson in Parks and Recreation) appears as a sexually frustrated DEA agent, on holiday with his family, who "ear fucks" David in a tent. Despite the presence of an RV and lots of drugs, David lacks anything resembling the complexity of Walter White. Unlikeable as he is, We're The Millers runs out the clock with us waiting for his reformation.
In short, We're The Millers feels like the kid at school who felt the need to follow up every compliment with an insult. It's not enough to make a "nice" film; no, nowadays all comedies feel the need to be somehow edgy. This is encapsulated in a scene where Jennifer Aniston is forced to strip off in order to save the lives of her "family". As she douses herself with water, Sudeikis breaks the fourth wall, turning to the camera with a what-can-you-do shrug. It's as if the film can't help itself, and, as such, for all the comedic and dramatic potential, feels like a wasted opportunity.
Verdict: If We're The Millers had been made in the '90s, it would have been a Jim Carrey vehicle like Liar Liar, the story of a curmudgeon who, over the course of the film, learns a valuable life lesson. Contemporary comedies seem afraid to be goofy, sentimental, and, on that front, We're The Millers gets it half right. Still, apart from one or two good punchlines - "Well done, you just snuck into Mexico" or "You guys are getting paid? - there's not much by the way of actual jokes. It's telling that the blooper real included at the end, including, is responsible for most of the laughs. More scenes of Sudeikis and Co. teasing Aniston with a rendition of I'll Be There For You and fewer tarantula bites on testicles would have made for a better film.
We're The Millers gets 6 out of 10.