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We’re the Millers (2013)

were-the-millers-posterI finally caught one of the biggest surprise hits of the year, the raunchy comedy We’re the Millers, and while fitfully entertaining, mostly in its second half, I have to wonder what made this film the hit it was, despite lack of clear comedy competition. The setup involves four people (Jason Sudeikis, Jennifer Aniston, Emma Roberts, Will Poulter) posing as a model nuclear family to smuggle drugs into the United States. You’d think the difficulty would be getting back into this country, but no, it’s all about keeping their cover, especially when a vacationing DEA agent (Nick Offerman) pals around. The flimsy setup gets much better in the second half as the false family dynamics and roles are skewered, particularly an educational kissing session between siblings and mother. I can also see the markings of why audiences gravitated to this otherwise so-so comedy. It offers each member to contribute meaningfully, it gives each a lesson and a triumph, and they form a likable bond. So while the joke payoffs may whiff, there’s a character payoff to pick up the slack. Plus there’s an Aniston stripping sequence to showcase the fitness of the forty-something actress. The jokes settle for easy vulgarity a bit too often but every now and then the film surprises. Sudeikis is slyly enjoyable channeling a young smarmy smartass Chevy Chase, and Offerman is hilarious, enough to make you wish the movie followed his family. We’re the Millers reminds me of the 90s works of the Farrelly Brothers, a mixture of gross-out gags, slapstick, uninspired villains, and a dash of sentiment. We’re the Millers is an acceptable comedy, not a great one, but after its quarter billion dollar box-office riches, get ready to meet the Millers all over again.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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Just Go With It (2011)

Loosely based off the 1969 film Cactus Flower, the title of the latest Adam Sandler comedy feels like a transparent plea from the screenwriters and Sandler. He plays a womanizing plastic surgeon that has bedded many women under the false pretenses of being married to horrible women. Now he’s in a dilly of a pickle because he has to convince the new hottie in his life (Brooklyn Decker, former swimsuit model, clearly chosen for her acting “talents”) that he is getting a divorce from his fake wife, played by his assistant (Jennifer Aniston). Her real-life kids become Sandler’s fake kids, and the whole lot goes along for a Hawaiian vacation. At various points characters will talk about how confusing the lies are becoming. I wish. Just Go with It doesn’t have the ambition to embrace its farcical premise, instead settling on rom-com gooeyness even though most of the characters are lying jerks. Sandler’s been tricking women into sleeping with him for decades, but we’re supposed to view him as a good guy? What’s the point of throwing in Nicole Kidman, of all people, as Aniston’s college nemesis if the film doesn’t do anything with the different pretenses? Things don’t get too complicated because the characters really only assume one identity and one story, blunting escalating comic mishap. While Sandler and Aniston have a surprisingly natural chemistry together, and some of the jokes are decent in conception, Just Go With It is a wearisome rom-com weighed down with false sentiment and kicks to the groin.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Horrible Bosses (2011)

The true joy of Horrible Bosses, besides the vicarious premise, is the interaction and camaraderie of a rock-solid cast of comedians. Jason Bateman (Juno), Jason Sudekis (TV’s Saturday Night Live), and Charlie Day (TV’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) play the three put upon friends who conspire to kill their not so very nice bosses, respectively played by Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell, and Jennifer Aniston. The comedy is amusing from start to finish, prone to plenty of guffaws and a few big laughs. The film strikes a delicate tone while being nasty without being too brutish or oft putting. This is not a scorched-earth sort of comedy despite its murderous implications. The guys are more bumbling than threatening, which makes even their criminal pursuits clumsy and endearing. It’s got plenty of surprises and I enjoyed how most of the storylines and players wound up back together. It’s a satisfying movie that veers in some unexpected directions. But the real reason to see Horrible Bosses is just how damn funny the cast is. The snappy screenplay establishes a solid comedic setup and lets the leads bounce off one another to great hilarity. Whether arguing over who would be most raped in prison, the ins and outs of killing on a budget, or the dubious nature of hiring hit men under the “men seeking men” section online, the three leads all bring something different to the comedic table, and watching them interact and play around with the situation is a delight. It’s a buddy comedy with a dash of Arsenic and Old Lace. While the characters are more exaggerated stock types, the comedy, kept at a near breathless pace by director Seth Gordon (King of Kong, Four Christmases), is refreshing, smartly vulgar, and not afraid to get dark. Watching Aniston play against type as a sex-crazed man-eater is enjoyable, but hands down, no one does sadism with the same joy as Spacey. That man could melt a glacier with the intense power of his glare. Horrible Bosses is a relative blast of a comedy, one that maintains a steady output of laughs with some easy targets.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Bounty Hunter (2010)

When a woman runs out of a trunk and is chased down by a man who then tackles her and drags her back to said trunk, how would you react? Horror, right? This scenario is the opening minute of The Bounty Hunter, an abhorrent romantic comedy that fails in every regard. The opening scene is supposed to be funny because it’s two stars and we learn, via onscreen text, that the guy and gal are formerly married. Somehow this knowledge makes the scene… funny? Because in real life no spurned ex-spouses inflict punishment on their former halves. This disastrous and bizarre opening clued me in that The Bounty Hunter was going to be one hell of a slog to sit through. It made me want to put a bounty on the filmmakers who made this mess possible.

Milo (Gerard Butler) is an ex-cop who currently pays the bills as a bounty hunter. Nicole (Jennifer Aniston) is an investigative reporter looking into a series of suicides that might not be what they seem. She’s also due in court for hitting a police horse with her car (the reveal of her actual crime is intended to be a payoff; you?re welcome for having it spoiled). Nicole gets too close to a crime conspiracy that has connections inside the New York City police force, so goons chase her down to kill her. Naturally, she misses her court date and becomes a wanted fugitive, which brings her ex back into the picture. Milo is elated that he gets to drag his ex-wife to jail and get paid for doing so. Along the way, the couple improbably rekindles their old romance while being chased by hordes of goons with guns.

First off, The Bounty Hunter is one of the more unpleasant, tone-deaf comedies I’ve seen in years. It assumes if two people, with obviously zero chemistry, will bicker long enough in shrill voices, eventually comedy will emerge. This is the comedic equivalent of the faulty scientific theory of Spontaneous Generation. The comedy just isn’t coming. I never laughed once during the entire painful 115 minutes. I failed to crack even a smile. I sat dumbfounded, looking back and forth between the screen and my wife’s reaction, to gauge if I was truly missing something, mainly the “comedy” part. These people are unlikable and not once do you ever believe that they are capable of even expressing a realistic human emotion. These are people that shouldn’t even exist in a crummy romantic comedy. These are the background players in a crummy romantic comedy, given starring roles and proving with every exhalation why they should have remained Angry Dinner Couple #2. Milo is a jackass who’s full of himself and Nicole is whiny and annoying and they both have massive egos. Butler and Aniston have various acting abilities, though both seem to be in rapid decline, but their hammy acting is trying to overcompensate for the film’s numerous shortcomings. They’re playing broadly, but now they’re just broad, unlikable idiots rather than unlikable idiots. The only way anybody could like these characters is imagining that they’re completely different people.

The premise itself routinely destroys any plausible sense of believability. Milo chases down his ex-wife in scene after scene, taunting her, spitefully laughing at her misfortune, harassing and threatening her. At NO POINT WHATSOEVER in the entire movie does a single person look at this ongoing relationship and cry foul. Nobody calls the police, nobody intervenes, nobody notices what explicitly looks like a woman being stalked and kidnapped by a creep. At no point does Milo flash a badge to at least provide some context or explain his actions, so scene after scene looks like a blatant kidnapping with the female captive kicking and screaming. There is nothing wacky or amusing in watching a world of apathetic rom-com extras ignoring what is obviously somebody in trouble. The fact that Milo can get away with this behavior in a gala of public venues only makes the movie, and every living being within it, infinitely dumber.

The very nature of the comedy oddly results in plenty of cruel slapstick. Nicole has an officemate, Stewart (Jason Sudeikis), who is smitten with her after a drunken bout of making out. He follows her to Atlantic City and eventually gets hijacked by the goons after Milo. There are several astonishing scenes that just involve the goons torturing Stewart. They hit him in the leg with a golf club, they inject a horse tranquilizer into his neck, and all of this is somehow supposed to be funny. It’s really just mean and rather distasteful. The fact that The Bounty Hunter thinks that this situation is a comedy goldmine speaks volumes to me. Watching a dweeby character repeatedly get injured is not funny on its face, and it’s even less funny when the film just lets it keep happening without comment. Stewart doesn’t deserve his pain and neither does the unfortunate audience watching this garbage.

Director Andy Tennant (Hitch, Fool’s Gold) and screenwriter Sarah Thorp (Twisted) wouldn’t know comedy if it chained them to a car door. Tennant’s idea of comedy is to stretch the comedy, play things as big and as long as possible. There are plenty of moments that have a rather slipshod comedic setup (oh look, they’re chasing a guy on a golf course in a golf cart! This has to end well right?), and then the movie just keeps going and going, long after what was designed to be funny crashed, burned, and had its ashes scattered at sea. His visual style also leans on bright pastel colors that heighten the cartoonish atmosphere. The comic set-ups are along the lines of? Milo chains Nicole to bed. She crawls over him to reach for gun. Sexual dialogue about a “gun.” Milo chases a guy on stilts. Stilts! How could you resist that? And then at one point Nicole tries to make a break for it in a rickshaw. I’m already not laughing. And then the movie wants to be an action caper and lo does it fail miserably at this as well. Nicole is being chased by a bevy of goons because she knows too much. Milo is also being chased by his own bevy of goons that want to collect on his gambling debts. Then there’s a mutual friend/cop who may be dirty or might not be, but it’s just way too many extraneous characters chasing after the likes of Milo and Nicole.

Thorp lacks an ear for dialogue. She seems to have some basic grasp on the ingredients of funny, but she can’t make them come together and work. Every line alternates between being clumsy, obvious, or clumsily obvious. We’re supposed to be amused by Milo and Nicole’s banter. It’s grating, like you’re stuck in someone else’s miserable family vacation. There’s a moment in the end where Milo has distracted the bad guys and come to save his ex-wife, and then instead of bolting they sit and glumly talk about the failed state of their relationship. Could that not have waited until you were safe? The tone is decidedly uneven and the second half of the film feels like an eternity. The comedy completely gets smothered in the last half because now the movie wants to be taken seriously and we’re supposed to care about the characters getting back together, as if their reconciliation was ever in doubt. Thorp’s screenplay feels like a pastiche of 1000 different movies. There isn’t an original thought anywhere inside this movie. Even worse, there isn’t anything funny. This is the kind of movie that you say, “Well, it had its moments,” except The Bounty Hunter doesn’t even have those “moments.”

The Bounty Hunter is a colossal miscalculation on the part of everyone involved. It is neither funny nor romantic in any sense, it’s weirdly cruel and very casual about it, and the entire movie exists in some contrived, sketchy realm of reality that only exists in the furthest reaches of the rom-com universe. I find it funny (much funnier than anything in this movie) that Butler and Aniston were rumored to be dating after filming this movie. They have no screen chemistry whatsoever, though they can argue in annoying tones effectively. As the film neared its merciful end, I thought about calling somebody to round up those responsible for such an egregious waste of time and money. It’s not just that The Bounty Hunter is a bad movie; it’s a woefully clumsy and excruciating movie even considering the depths of romantic comedies. And if anybody sat through The Ugly Truth, or Over Her Dead Body, or anything with Freddie Prinze Jr. in it, then you know exactly how alarming that statement is.

Nate’s Grade: D

He’s Just Not That Into You (2009)

Based upon the best-selling nonfiction book, the movie follows the interconnected lives of a cadre of characters trying to get lucky in love. As with any ensemble piece, some storylines are better than others, notably Ginnifer Goodwin (HBO’s Big Love) as a naïve and hapless gal confused by the ever-changing rules and rituals of contemporary courtship. Her scenes with Justin Long, as her dating coach, are the movie’s high-point. The two actors have a light, charming chemistry and their scenes get at the heart of the male/female dating dysfunctionality without feeling trite. But in between, you get a lot of hackneyed yakking about the stereotypical differences between men and women, how dumb men are, how crazy women can be, etc. It’s all been covered to death by other romantic comedies to the point that it feels like common knowledge, which makes it tiring to sit through. Some of the drama feels overly manufactured, like Jennifer Aniston pushing to get married because she her little sister got engaged, there are characters that are just annoying people, like Kevin Connolly continuing to nip at the heels of Scarlett Johansson for some scraps, and Some of the material is weirdly dated, like Drew Barrymore talking about being “Myspace-ed” by a prospective date (Hello, it’s all Facebook all the time now). Naturally, it’s all rather predictable as well, however, this is not the fun date movie it may seem. It hits some rough dramatic patches, like the pains of infidelity, losing trust in a spouse, manipulating people, and occasionally there will be a moment that comes across as genuine and heartfelt, like when Ben Affleck wins over Aniston simply by being thoughtful and doing the dishes. It’s in these sporadic moments that He’s Just Not That Into You feels like it’s tapped something a little deeper and more meaningful than scraping the barrel of romantic comedy clichés.

Nate?s Grade: C+

Marley & Me (2008)

The dog dies. There. You’ve been warned. I feel that everyone walking into this movie needs to know exactly what they will endure. It’s not just that the cute, rambunctious yellow Labrador of the title dies, it’s how. The cause of death is fairly ordinary for an aged pooch, but it’s how the film Marley & Me goes about wringing every possible tear that should be known (so spoilers already, folks). The whole process is drawn out to maximum drama. We get the parents, John and Jennifer (Owen Wilson and Jennifer Anniston), discussing the sad realities of what must be done. We see each of their three children say goodbye to their beloved dog before he goes off one last time to the vet. We see the oldest child, who knows fully well what will happen, tear up and hug the dog’s face. But putting the dog to sleep in between scenes is not an option for this movie, and so we witness the slow process with John caressing his beloved dog as the life slowly ebbs away. And, to hammer home the sentiment ever harder, the movie cuts back and forth between the dog dying at the vet’s office and to John’s children watching a home movie montage of Marley through the years. John, who has been dubbing his canine “the worst dog in the world,” then whispers into Marley’s ears that he was, in fact, a “great dog.” Oh, but it doesn’t stop there. Then we have the kids return one more time for a doggie funeral. Each kid buries a message they wrote for their dearly departed dog including one that hopes that there is lots of things to chew on in heaven (the kid also drew a picture of the dog with angel wings and a halo). My friends, I am a grown man but even I was no match for this emotional onslaught. I felt like a battered prizefighter, thinking I had enough willpower to collect myself and then the movie hit me again with another blow. If you can sit stone-faced then I envy you and, at the same time, I pity you.

So there it is. I feel that every interested party in Marley & Me needs to know what will devastate them in the end. The film follows the marriage of John and Jennifer, who both work as reporters in Florida. She’s got the better gig, and he’s running around town tying to report on methane leaks and writing obits. John envies his friend Sebastian (Eric Dane) and the fame and credibility he has as a serious journalist who travels the globe. Sebastian suggests that John get his wife a puppy to delay her biological clock. And so one fateful day, John blindfolds his wife and takes her to a puppy farm. She picks the cheapest puppy out of a pack of Labradors (Note to self: there is always a reason a puppy is cheaper than its peers). They name the new addition Marley. John’s cantankerous editor (played by the cantankerous Alan Arkin) orders him to start writing a column. He’s absent column ideas until he starts writing about the comic misadventures of owning a dog. The column becomes a hit and Marley becomes a boon of inspiration, when he isn’t eating everything in sight, edible and non-edible alike.

Marley & Me is a curious creature. Much of the plot follows a repetitious formula of Marley being destructive. He eats pillows. He chews on clothes. He eats drywall. He bursts through a screen door. He chases after people. He eats plants. He eats jewelry. He eats anything and everything. Probably half of this movie is watching Marley destroy something while John and Jennifer run around. For a decent portion, Marley & Me will play out as a cautionary tale to parents about dog ownership. Now, for pet owners, the movie will be seen as amusing and truthful, and I can attest to this. My two-year-old mutt Atticus will routinely chew on things he is not supposed to, notably my wife’s shoes and underwear (we still love him). However, I’m not about to turn this quirk of pet ownership into the majority of a screenplay. If you eliminated Marley from the story all you wouldn’t be left with much to warrant watching.

The rest of the film really focuses on the nuts and bolts of holding together a marriage. John and Jennifer have three children and their marriage experiences some strained times, but they bounce back. They’re both fairly nice people. The non-dog moments of the film play out in equal amounts of mundane and fantasy. The mundane moments are mostly the marital glimpses between john and Jennifer, where we see them engage in realistic arguments and conflicts and reach believable resolutions. The fantasy angle occurs whenever we flash back to John’s writing career. John is ordered to take a column, and then when he’s offered it full-time he wavers. His editor then quickly says he’ll double his salary. The movie is also filled with little moments where everyone tells the main character how great they are, how special what they’re doing is, and this always feels too hackneyed for me when the main character is also the author. It’s ego stroking (look out for the main character of Nate Zoebl to be dubbed way too awesome by every other character in the upcoming film, “The Life and Times of Nate Zoebl — Man of Humble Awesomeness”). Most of the time spent at John’s work is boring, probably because most storylines would be boring when compared to the wacky antics of a dog.

Director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) shepherds the comedy along nicely. The pacing is swift for a two-hour dog movie. Frankel includes a peculiar sequence shortly after John is assigned his column. John rapidly narrates the next few months of his life with Marley, and the movie cranks up the speed on the visuals. It strongly reminded me of a similar experience in 2002’s Rules of Attraction, where Victor (Kip Pardue) quickly narrates his months of debauchery spent in Europe. It’s a strange connection to be made with a family film.

Marley & Me is definitely going to hit people in different ways. As a loyal dog owner, it made me want to rush home and hug my 45-pound fuzzy baby. The movie presents the chaos of life as something to be cherished, much like Marley. It channels Wilson’s lackadaisical charm and the movie comes across as amusing, chipper, and then downright wrenching once the old dog’s time has come. I’ve been reading about angry parents and grandparents that took their young ones to this movie and then left with crying, shell-shocked little tykes. These people feel that it is wholly inappropriate for young ones to be subjected to the trauma of losing a loved one. Apparently they didn’t read a review where the author’s first sentence was, “The dog dies.” I don’t think Marley & Me will be responsible for therapy bills but this flick examines the enjoyment and heartache of pet ownership like few others. And yeah, the ending is laid on really, really thick, but it shows how a creature could destroy many of your personal possessions and still be considered man’s best friend.

Nate’s Grade: B

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