Some things in American culture are easier to make fun of than to make funny. Take the recreational vehicle. If history has taught us anything, it’s that there’s virtually zero chance a film is going to prove the laughfest you’d like if it makes prominent comic use of an RV.
Exhibit A: RV (2006). The low point in the careers of both Barry Sonnenfeld (Wild Wild West) and Robin Williams. If you’ve seen Flubber (1997), Death to Smoochy (2002) or Old Dogs (2009), you can appreciate the level of awfulness I’m suggesting. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
The Winnebago, like its gas-guzzlin’ cousins, is such a big, goofy, quintessentially American contraption, you’d figure using it to produce humor would be a piece of cake. It’s the Barcalounger of big wheelers. And yet, the finest minds in Hollywood have failed time after time to milk it successfully for movie yuks.
Jay Roach, for example, can make anything from a secret agent with poor dental hygiene (Austin Powers) to a wrestling match between naked dudes (Borat) funny, but he couldn’t eke a chuckle out of scenes that Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro shared in a motor home owned by the father-in-law from hell. Meet the Fockers was stuck in snooze control.
Mel Brooks gave us a spaceship in the shape of an RV for Spaceballs, but the gag went nowhere at warp speed. The combined efforts of Alexander Payne (Sideways) and Jack Nicholson couldn’t justify a ride-along on the protagonist’s cross-country odyssey in the 35-footer featured in About Schmidt.
So it does not exactly shock that the latest attempt to wring entertainment from this comic vehicle is all over the road tonally, not to mention skimpy on guffaws per gallon. Did we really expect Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball) to put his stamp on modern comedy?
You’ve seen the ads: Jason Sudeikis plays Dave, a small-time Denver pot dealer who’s forced by his boss (Ed Helms) to transport tons of product across the Mexican border in a motor home (the Newmar Dutch Star). Promising a cut of the take, he recruits a motley collection of acquaintances to pose as his all-American family, hoping to minimize the guards’ suspicion.
There’s Sudeikis’ Horrible Bosses costar, Jennifer Aniston, as a stripper who accepts Dave’s proposal to play his wife in exchange for a payday. Will Poulter and Emma Roberts — a latchkey dork and a potty-mouth street punk, respectively — clean up to come along as his make-believe brood. When you’re not marveling at how much more fun the two leads were in Horrible Bosses, you’re likely to be scratching your head over the film’s seriously split personality.
The picture’s committee of writers clearly couldn’t decide whether they wanted to go for R-rated raunch or heart-tugging sentimentality, so they opted for both. The first half of the film mocks family values and conventions. The second is all about the fake clan bonding for real and longing, improbably, to embrace the Cleaver lifestyle.
Along the way, neither the motor home nor the movie takes an unpredictable turn. We’re the Millers is not without flashes of inspiration or the occasional laugh-out-loud moment (think National Lampoon’s Vacation with male frontal nudity), but they’re detours. Any envelope pushing takes a backseat to bathos, to the fake family’s journey to the land of warm and fuzzy fakeness — and feel-good final acts rarely get faker than this one.
Certainties are few in this life, but you can take it from me: Though the movie listings may suggest otherwise, there’s no such thing as Miller time.