By Cleaver Patterson.
There will always be drawbacks for any actor appearing in a film alongside Jennifer Aniston, the main one being that you shall inevitably have to take second-billing to everyone’s favorite friend. Director Rawson Marshall Thurber’s new comedy We’re the Millers may co-star successful funny man Jason Sudeikis, Julia Robert’s precociously talented niece Emma and the endearingly goofy English boy Will Poulter, but they’re all soon sidelined once Aniston makes her dramatic entrance, after which she seldom leaves the screen.
David Clark (Sudeikis) is a man with a problem. A small time Denver drug dealer, he finds himself in way over his head after he is robbed of his supplies of hash as well as all of his money—most of which he owes to his ‘boss’ Brad Gurdlinger (Ed Helms). Penniless and with no choice but to do what Brad says, David agrees to travel to Mexico and bring back a shipment of weed, in exchange for which Brad will forget the debt as well as pay David half a million dollars for his trouble. The only hitch now is that David has to find a way of passing himself off as ‘normal’ so as not to attract the attention of the authorities at the Mexican border. Enter two neighbors from his apartment block: Rose O’Reilly (Aniston), a dancer at a local strip club and Kenny Rossmore (Poulter), a teenager living on his own after being abandoned by his mother. Along with a young drifter named Casey (Roberts) who happens across their path, they agree for a fee to masquerade as David’s wife and kids, hoping to give everyone the impression that they are just your normal American family on vacation. Everything proceeds smoothly until they reach their destination to collect the drugs, at which point they realize Brad has not been totally honest and that they are involved in a much bigger operation than they were initially led to believe.
There was a time, some years back now, when farce was a popular sub-genre within the wider oeuvre of humorous cinema. Hollywood efforts like the Walter Matthau vehicle A Guide for the Married Man (1967) and most pre-1970 entries from the British postcard humor series of Carry On films were smash hits with their double-entendre laden, wink wink approach to sexual shenanigans. However, where those films implied much more than they were allowed to show, the modern take on such schoolboy laughs is definitely the more the merrier. A perfect example of how low this approach can go is to be found in We’re the Millers, though you can hardly expect depth when a film’s core cast consists of a two-bit drug pusher, a has-been stripper and two directionless teenage misfits.
To give the film its dues, it is quite clear from the accompanying advertising campaign—consisting of a poster highlighted by black arrows proclaiming the preoccupations of the central characters in large white lettering—the base-level this film is aiming at. However, some of the lengths to which it goes may be considered a step too far for all but the most laddish of viewers. Clever homages such as the scene where Brad keeps an orca whale in a huge glass aquarium at the back of his office, reminiscent of Stromberg’s fish tank in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), or that consisting of David and Rose in a tent, along with some hapless holidaymakers they inadvertently meet on their trip, which could have been lifted straight out of Carry on Camping (1969), are all the more obvious due to their infrequency, and soon forgotten in a wave of crass and generally unnecessary cringe inducing slapstick. The old adage that less is more clearly means little when a central plot point revolves around Kenny being bitten in the nether-regions by a vibrantly colored spider—suffice it to say this is one place the filmmakers should have left the resulting injury to the viewer’s imagination, rather than show the unfortunate boy’s manhood in all its swollen glory.
As mentioned though, this was really only ever going to be Aniston’s film. In the nine years since the end of Friends, the series which made her a global superstar, she is the only member of the show’s sextet to have made any truly lasting impression. In an obvious effort to break the ‘girl-next-door’ mold in which the series cast her, Aniston has tried edgier roles with mixed success. Despite critical plaudits for her part in director Miguel Arteta’s gritty drama The Good Girl (2002) and her against the norm role in the criminally overlooked thriller Derailed (2005), it has been to the safety of comedy to which she has repeatedly returned. Even here however, she has constantly chosen films such as the tawdry Horrible Bosses (2011) whose humor is unorthodox to say the least. Unfortunately, funny though We’re the Millers undoubtedly is, it takes the same approach. Though her role here as the stripper with a heart gives her plenty of opportunity to show off a toned body which girls half her age would be envious of, it is a part Aniston could now play with her eyes closed, and is unlikely to push her in the direction of the serious acting credibility for which she so clearly craves.
Back to Jennifer’s supporting cast (in-other-words everyone in the film other than her) that we discussed in the opening paragraph. You can virtually guarantee that you will star in a hit if Ms. Aniston’s name appears above the title, which is good in any actor’s book. On the downside though, it’s unlikely that the audience will remember who, apart from her, was in it. Tough choice.
Cleaver Patterson is film critic and writer based in London.
We’re the Millers opened in the USA on the 7th August and the UK on the 23rd August, 2013.