First there was The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, which imported the tame style of 1990s comedy into 2013. Then there was The To Do List, which mocked ’90s culture in order to fulfill its decidedly post-millennial comedic mindset. Now there’s We’re the Millers, another in the trend of old-fashioned comedies in 2013, though its chief inspiration dates far past the ’90s back to 1983, when the John Hughes/Harold Ramis classic Vacation fused innocent cheekiness with nuclear family values.
There is something undeniably Hughes-ian to this film, and not just because it co-opts the Road Movie subgenre of which the late, great writer-director was fond. From the motley group of disparate types forced together to the convenient high concept that sets the story into motion to the outsized, irresistibly annoying characters that pepper the story’s landscape to the screenplay’s willingness to get dirty while still clinging to a sneaking sweetness, We’re the Millers espouses many of the definitive broad strokes that made some of Hughes’ works so iconic. In all fairness, this film stops short of icon status, but it chases that mold in admirable ways. And it’s pretty damn funny.
“The Millers,” as it happens, are not actually a family at all, but a group of lost souls — actually, one could refer to them as “deviants” — who come together for the potential betterment of their lives. In other words, they join forces to pose as a family on vacation so they can smuggle massive amounts of marijuana out of Mexico and split the $100,000 finder’s fee. David (Jason Sudeikis) is the drug dealer who brings them together. Rose (Jennifer Aniston) is his neighbor, a stripper. They loathe one another, but are united in their desire for cash. Rounding out the family unit are the kids: homeless drifter Casey (Emma Roberts), who abandoned her family, and innocent neighbor Kenny (Will Poulter), whose family abandoned him.
This charade comes with life-or-death stakes: our heroes not only must survive lethal drug dealers and stringent border agents, but also the threat of being unwittingly exposed by douche-bag families they meet on the road. Nick Offerman and Kathryn Hahn play one such family, the Fitzgeralds, well-meaning square-pegs who keep crossing paths with our heroes and unwittingly threaten their plight. The jokes are pretty easy and standard — the relative kinkiness of the Millers is attractive to their dimwit, conservative road trip counterparts, creating some irresistibly goofy gags involving awkward sexual confusion.
Confusion is the chief comedic tool in We’re the Millers, since the juxtaposition of what “The Millers” present themselves as and what they actually are becomes a frequent basis for the film’s humor. That kind of comedic architecture can become repetitive, but the spirit of these actors makes even the simplest joke feel smart and engaging. Sudeikis has a way of subverting a squeaky-clean exterior with sharp and cynical humor, which makes him the perfect choice to lead this film. Similarly, after years of being held back by her own clean-cut image, Aniston relishes the opportunity to embrace darker and edgier humor. Roberts and Poulter are perfect polar opposites as would-be siblings, and Hahn and Offerman bring sneaking warmth to otherwise transparent caricatures.
Yes, in style and construction, We’re the Millers resembles a classic John Hughes comedy. If the movie isn’t a classic in itself, it’s because the emotion becomes a little too thickly sweet as the story concludes, which feels false in the wake of the otherwise barbed humor. Had the screenplay found a way to translate its comedic edge into honest emotion, that would have been special. As it stands, We’re the Millers, though familiar in its setup and old-fashioned in its emotion, is still a fun and rollicking lark.