Review: Unfunny and undercooked ‘We’re The Millers’ totally wastes a decent ensemble

It does not remotely surprise me that Sean Anders and John Morris are the writers of “Dumb and Dumber To,” because I sense a strong admiration for the work of the Farrelly Brothers in the scripts of theirs that I’ve read. I think the best thing they’ve had produced so far was also directed by Anders, and that’s “Sex Drive,” a movie that I expected absolutely nothing from when it was first announced. That movie had a simple hook, and it made the most of its enthusiastic cast, including Clark Duke and James Marsden, who both absolutely killed it in the film.

“We’re The Millers,” unfortunately, feels to me like an outline for a film instead of an actual film. I can see what the hook is, I can see how all of the various characters should interact, and I can see where the punchlines belong, but as an actual film, I found it very nearly inert. A few painfully obvious laughs do not a successful comedy make, and I’m baffled how you can throw this many relatively funny people at an idea this blatantly down-the-middle and end up with something like this, where it just can’t land a punch.

I’m not a firm believer that audiences have to like the main character of a movie for that movie to be good, but I am confused why I should feel invested in any way in the plight of David Clark (Jason Sudeikis), a low-level drug dealer who ends up owing his supplier, the unctuous Brad Gurdlinger (Ed Helms), a ton of money. He agrees to work off the money he owes by driving “a smidge” of marijuana over the border from Mexico, and comes up with what he believes is the perfect plan. He convinces a stripper named Rose (Jennifer Aniston), a kid from his building named Kenny (Will Poulter), and a homeless girl named Casey (Emma Roberts) to pose as his happy suburban family, assuming no one will look twice at them.

I think the great version of this movie would have to be completely and utterly without remorse. You want to comment on the assumption of white privilege, especially when dealing with border politics? Great. Take no prisoners. Scorched earth. Go for it. You want to lambast the inherent lunacy of our drug war? I’m all for it. But you have to mean it. This film snarls and spits a little, but it falls victim to that painful tendency for studio comedies to undercut their own sense of humor by suddenly trying to play on the heartstrings as well, and it is totally 100% phony in this film. There’s a moment where David is describing his family and the music swells and he realizes as he’s describing them that he loves these people and all I wanted to do was kick a hole in the screen and spraypaint “BULLSHIT” in giant letters across the entire thing. These characters all start in such a rotten place that struggling to make us suddenly invest in whether or not David and Rose are in love or whether Casey finds the home she wants or Kenny becomes the man he wishes to be is all just wasted energy. Comedies should have one primary goal: make us laugh. This pathetic drive to make comedies that also serve as a big warm cup of cocoa undercuts the laughs in most cases, and this is a particularly painful example of filmmakers destroying what they’ve built because they’re chasing the wrong goal.

Obviously, I can’t lay all of this at the feet of Anders and Morris. They were rewriters on the film, with earlier drafts by Bob Fisher & Steve Faber, who co-wrote “Wedding Crashers” together, and it was directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber, whose “Dodgeball” was a shaggy but unfocused effort. This final product does not reflect particularly well on anyone, though. I’m baffled by how many scenes in the film feel like a place-holder while they’re building the structure without the actual jokes put in. When even Nick Offerman and Kathryn Hahn can’t bring the comedy to life, you know things are dire. It honestly feels like they didn’t even try to figure out how to finish some of the scenes. If you want a perfect example, watch how they wrap up the running “joke” about the baby they’re supposedly carrying with them. I don’t understand anyone’s motivation in the scene that wraps that up, and I’m not sure how we’re supposed to believe any human beings would every behave that way at all. It’s not just bad writing, it’s baffling.

I’m still not sure anyone’s figured out what to do with Jason Sudeikis as a lead in films yet. He’s not bad here, but he’s got the “reflexive wise-ass” thing cranked up to 11 from his very first scene, and there’s nothing else there. One of the main reasons I don’t believe his inevitable transformation into a nice guy at the end of the film is because Sudeikis only plays that one note over and over. Jennifer Aniston does not fare much better, and much like “Wanderlust,” this is another role where there is  a specific script-mandated reason for nudity and it feels like Aniston took the role knowing that, also knowing there’s no way she’s going to do that. In “Wanderlust,” there is literally a topless protest, and the film goes out of its way not to show her in that moment, and here, the lives of all four of them depend on her convincing a drug cartel leader that she is in fact a professional stripper, and she proceeds to do the most PG-rated lap dance in film history. All I can figure is that she wants to know she can still book the jobs that require the actress to be sexy, but she shuts down all conversations about nudity as soon as she’s hired. I don’t have any particular drive to see Aniston naked, but I’m baffled by the way this is a trend with her.

I didn’t realize Will Poulter was one of the two lead kids from “Son Of Rambow” until I was discussing this with someone over the weekend, and I am glad to see him working. Of the four leads, Poulter is the only one who seems to commit 100% to the role he’s playing, and he comes closest to etching something memorable out of the material. Emma Roberts, on the other hand, barely registers playing a sullen teen nothing. The film feels slapped together on a technical level, and there is an attitude towards everyone who’s not a white American that is really creepy.

During the closing credits, they show some bloopers, and this entire enterprise feels so fake to me that when they show everyone serenading Aniston with a “surprise” performance of the theme from “Friends,” she not only looks like she is completely in on the joke, but she also looks like she wants to crawl out of her skin even as she forces a big smile. It’s a fitting ending to a film that has no real idea what it’s trying to be or do or say. I have a feeling that if you bring this film up to me next month, I won’t even remember having seen it, but when the film ended and I got up and hurried out of the screening room, it’s quite telling that it felt like I was escaping.

The film opens in theaters Wednesday. I’d say consider this a warning, but I don’t even feel that strongly about it. Limp and unfunny, “We’re The Millers” simply doesn’t work.