Tuesday, August 13, 2013

'We're the Millers' (2013) directed by Rawson Thurber Miller

There's two elements at play in We're the Millers.  The first is pretty funny, though rarely challenging, comedy about the pitfalls of trying to smuggle an RV full of marijuana over the Mexican border.  The second is a paean to conformism, the film brazenly explaining the myriad joys of seamlessly fit into a suburban, bourgeois lifestyle   A zany, occasionally gross-out comedy that also tries to impress domestic conservative values is a curious combination that shouldn't really work, so it's rather surprising how nearly it does.

Our titular 'Millers' are David (Jason Sudeikis), a very small-time drug dealer in his mid 30s; Rose (Jennifer Aniston), a stripper who is thoroughly sick of her job; Kenny (Will Poulter) a perpetually confused young virgin; and Casey (Emma Roberts), a cynical young punk runaway.  David gets in deep with a local drug lord, who offers to settle his debts by ordering him to drive to Mexico and pick up a 'smidge' of weed.  David then recruits Rose, Kenny and Casey and offers to cut them in on the deal if they'll pretend to be a nuclear family - the idea being that no-one would suspect a dorky, white, middle-class family of being involved in drug smuggling.

Naturally the complications come thick and fast, the ersatz family variously managing to quickly piss off a murderous Mexican drug cartel, suffer mechanical problems with their RV and inadvertently befriend a curious DEA Agent (Nick Offerman) and his family.  But the biggest problem they face is each other.  As the film begins they're all essentially eccentric loners thrown together by circumstance.  They bicker and argue, threatening to leave at the slightest provocation and rolling their eyes at being forced to behave in what to them is such a powerfully lame way. 

I saw the trailer for this last week, and frankly I was expecting the worst.  Jennifer Aniston has only ever been in two films I've genuinely enjoyed, Office Space and Leprechaun.  Her presence feels a little like the kiss of death for a comedy, so when the jokes started landing thick and fast I was slightly shocked.   Though the script keeps rumbling along at a decent pace, it's the chemistry between the four leads that powers the film, they work brilliantly together.

Gotta admit, it's a convincing cover story.
The humour in this film isn't particularly highbrow (to say the least): at one point Kenny gets a tarantula in his shorts and proceeds to dance around shouting "It bit me on my balls!  On my balls!" over and over , followed by a quick shot of his grotesquely swollen scrotum.  I laughed.  Ah come on, I'm only human, a spider biting someone on the balls is funny almost because it's so juvenile.  The real high points for me were the interactions between the fake Miller family and the real Fitzgerald family.  

Nick Offerman's Don Fitzgerald is essentially playing a slightly skewed version of Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation, and here he's no less funny.  He and his wife are trying to reignite their spark in the bedroom, and see David and Rose as kindred spirits for sexual experimentation.  The two families time together leads to a brilliant series of bizarre, incestuous misunderstandings which I won't spoil, but it builds to an impressive crescendo of hilarity.

Though the film is undeniably funny, lying underneath it is an utterly straightforward promotion of conservatism and right-wing values.  This is perhaps most visible in the 'fear of the other', shown in the way the film treats its Mexican characters.  Every single Mexican we meet in the film is devious and criminal, from the nakedly murderous gang members (who spend their down-time bare knuckle boxing), to the sexually voracious corrupt policemen (oh Luis Guzman don't do it to yourself) to glimpsed migrants desperate to escape their hell and cross the border. It was the last example that really bothered me.  We only see the migrant's backs as they run for their lives. The border patrol pulls out their guns and we hear a crackle of gunfire in the background - presumably shot dead.

The villains.  Mexicans!
These migrants, reduced to faceless, characterless human punchlines are essentially after the exact same thing the Millers ultimately want; comfortable, white, middle-class life. Repeatedly we're told and shown how life in the US is somehow touched by divinity.  The shiny RV, the lame outfits, prayers before journeys, lame cultural appropriation and cheery dimwittedness is all fetishised as crucial keys to happiness.  Indeed, at one crucial moment in the film, the villainous Mexicans are distracted by 4th of July fireworks.  This allowing our heroes to get the jump on them - almost saved by the divine touch Uncle Sam himself.  The more they conform to stolid, traditional social expectations of what a family 'should' be, the more successful they are and the happier the characters become.  

Fuelling all this conformism is modern American Puritanism.  If I just described the beats of the plot, you'd be forgiven for thinking it shared filmic DNA with Cheech and Chong, but in execution it's far more strait-laced.  For example, though their RV is literally stuffed full of weed, our protagonist is a drug dealer and the film is about drug smuggling, no-one ever actually smokes a joint on film.  It feels like a bizarre omission, ultimately it makes what they're smuggling totally irrelevant.  Indeed, the film goes to bizarre lengths to keep these characters spotless - both morally and legally.

The relentless struggle to conform means that for all the tight interplay in the performances and occasionally very funny writing, the film feels faintly poisonous.  The gags become propagandist tactics to get you to fear and hate anyone who refuses to adopt what the film-makers have decided is the 'right' kind of life.  So for all the swollen balls, fake incest and stripper gags, We're the Millers is a Republican Party wet dream.

We're the Millers is on general release from August 23

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