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Clan of worms

Critics panned it, but quirky family road trip comedy We're the Millers has been a surprise hit at the box office, writes Richard James Havis

 

ONE GOOD THING ABOUT We're the Millers, a new "broad" comedy featuring Jennifer Aniston as a stripper and Jason Sudeikis as a two-bit drug dealer, is that it's not quite as bad as most people expect it to be.

A kind of Meet the Parents cum National Lampoon's Vacation with a touch of, well, Scarface, there are actually some laughs amid the bawdy jokes and crude scenarios. Funnier, and less mean, than Horrible Bosses - Aniston and Sudeikis' previous outing together - the film is actually not bad considering its less than positive reviews and bizarre-sounding plot.

Indeed, We're the Millers has been embraced by audiences in the US, who quickly propelled it past the US$100 million mark at the box office, making it a surprise hit. As the movie only cost about US$35 million to make, it's no wonder that the producers are laughing as loud as the audience.

So what has We're the Millers got going for it? Rawson Marshall Thurber, who directed Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, says it puts a different spin on family road trip comedies.

The script, by Bob Fischer and Steve Faber, had been around for a number of years before it fell into Thurber's hands.

"It was a good script and I thought it was an original take on an American style of humour. I wanted to make something funny that also had a bit of heart to it," Thurber says.

Two other writers, Sean Anders and John Morris, joined the project.

"The script was in a constant state of being rewritten. There's an old saying that no work of art is ever finished, only abandoned," says Thurber.

"The process doesn't stop until they take it away from you, you just keep trying to make it better and better and better and better, faster, faster, funnier, funnier," says the 38-year-old filmmaker, who was a scriptwriter before he became a director.

For her part, lead actress Aniston didn't seem to think the script she saw needed much changing. "It was a very original and funny idea," she says, adding that she enjoys making comedies as much as dramas. "I love making people laugh."

The unlikely story begins with laid-back drug dealer David (Sudeikis), who only sells cannabis, being robbed as he tries to rescue a young woman from a gang of street punks.

The gang steals his savings, which he carries around in a backpack for safety. Unfortunately, much of this money is owed to his supplier. Threatened with death, he elects to take on a mission to pay off the debt: drive down to Mexico, cross the border, pick up a shipment of cannabis, and smuggle it back. The big problem is how to do it.

Hardly an imaginative thinker, David decides to hire a family as cover, and then drive over the Mexican border in a mobile home, pretending they are going on holiday. Conveniently, a pretend family - christened "the Millers" - can be found on his doorstep: his wife is stripper Rose (Aniston), who has just walked out on her job after being asked to sleep with the customers; his son is the virginal young Kenny (Will Poulter), in search of some adventure; and his daughter is street punk Casey (Emma Roberts), who just wants some cash.

The motley crew cross the border and run afoul of a vicious Mexican drug kingpin before absconding with his goods packed tightly into their vehicle.

Then the emotional drama sets in: the put-together family start acting like a real family, protecting each other as danger closes in.

"There's a little bit of heart squeezed in there, an underlying theme about a family not necessarily having to be the one you're born into, but one that you choose … even if my character does it solely out of convenience and desperation," explains Sudeikis.

On set, it may have been a case of life mirroring reality, at least for Aniston. "I think we actually became a family. You spend three, four months of your life together every day, all day, sometimes way too long, and you just have each other," she says.

Such personal bonding gave the filming process greater freedom. Sudeikis, who cut his teeth as a comedian on the famed US television series Saturday Night Live, on which he still appears, had already built up a comic rapport with Aniston on the set of Horrible Bosses. So the duo were comfortable enough to improvise many of the scenes in We're the Millers. The outtakes at the end of the film attest to their improvisational skills. "That's what's good about having great actors and actresses," says Thurber.

Aniston adds, "Jason's improvisational skills are fantastic, just masterful. That led to some awesome volleying back and forth."

Every broad comedy needs a gimmick, and this one comes in the form of a fairly mundane attempt at a striptease by Aniston.

Since leaving popular television series Friends in 2004, the actress has tried to distance herself from the clean-cut character of Rachel Green.

Horrible Bosses saw the actress try to redefine herself by playing a dirty-talking older woman, and We're the Millers is an attempt to go a step further. So, does the tactic work? Not really - it just looks like Rachel trying to do a striptease.

Her challenge, Aniston says, was not to look erotic, but to avoid falling over - and it shows. She never rehearsed the dance in the actual location before the cameras stated rolling.

"It threw me off a bit to go to the actual set, where there were real steps. To work out the routine on the steps, that was a bit challenging. Then there were the microphones and the cameras, and the crew. It stopped me in my tracks to start with, then I got in to the groove," she says.

But if she had fallen over mid-tease, it probably wouldn't have mattered that much. We're the Millers is, after all, a broad comedy.

48hours@scmp.com

 

We're the Millers opens on September 19

 

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