The quaint idea of the nuclear family is one that’s been skewered a thousand different ways. It’s a portrait of American domesticity that never really existed except on television in the 1950s. We’re the Millers tries to knock the nuclear family ideal and yet feels strangely beholden to it. Filled with hilarious, mean-spirited comedy, Rawson Marshall Thurber‘s movie swings between a cold, dead heart completely immune from sentimentality and then over to a mushy center where characters inadvertently bond and learn important life lessons. The space in between is filled with plenty of great jokes that you’ll struggle to remember mere moments after leaving the theater.
David (Jason Sudeikis) is a drug dealer who gets robbed, and owes his boss Brad (Ed Helms) tens of thousands of dollars. Brad agrees to spare David’s life if the hapless dealer agrees to smuggle a “smidge and a half” of weed across the border from Mexico. David realizes that the nuclear family is a perfect cover for his illegal operation, so he recruits his nerdy neighbor Kenny (Will Poulter), sullen teenage runaway Casey (Emma Roberts), and neighbor/stripper Rose (Jennifer Aniston). The mismatched fake family must then smuggle what turns out to be far more than 1.5 smidges of marijuana while dealing with an angry drug lord as well as an overly-perky, real family on vacation.
The conceit of We’re the Millers isn’t how four people who don’t have the same last name could get through airport security, border patrols, and customs just because they pretend they’re a happy family. The conceit is to undermine the portrait of the nuclear family with as much foul-mouthed, filthy, nasty humor as possible. The script apparently has a rule where if you can ever squeeze the word “fucking” into a phrase, go for it. Thankfully, the quality of the jokes can bear the curse-word crutch, especially since other comic moments are willing to push the movie beyond where you think it will stop. The underlying softness of the theme doesn’t protect the film, but instead provides a reason for the comedy to over-compensate. We’re the Millers is always running from looming sentimentality, and thankfully, the film runs pretty damn well.
But it ran by so fast that I now have trouble recalling exact jokes (I scribbled down “clown sandwich” in my notebook, which I think was an off-screen throwaway line, but it still made me guffaw). The performances are far more memorable and can handle the breezy, forgettable comedy. Sudeikis is perfectly cast because his appeal is a wholesome appearance that belies an offensive character. This can lead to whiplash with how fast David is willing to support and then betray his fake family, but Sudeikis manages to hold it together. However, the real scene stealers are fellow RV’ers, Don and Edie Fitzgerald (Nick Offerman and Kathryn Hahn). A legitimate nuclear family with their daughter Melissa (Molly Quinn), watching Don and Edie try to somewhat subvert their Leave It to Beaver attitudes provides a nice foil as well as a relief from the bickering “Millers”. It also doesn’t hurt that Offerman and Hahn are comic geniuses.
We’re the Millers features more than one kind of smuggling. It tries to sneak in a picture of domesticity that Americans never truly want to leave behind. For a film that acts like it couldn’t care less about hurt feelings and proper decorum, it’s still subservient to the idea of “family is where you find it.” There’s nothing wrong with needing other people, but We’re the Millers tries to hide its gushy message in a hard-R comedy shell. It’s an odd movie that tries to uphold what it’s seemingly eager to tear down, but it’s not a big deal when there are enough laughs behind the white picket fence.