(Video on Demand, December 2013) There’s little in We’re the Millers to suggest that it’s more than a middle-of-the-road Hollywood family comedy, but sociologists and policy wonks may be fascinated to note that public acceptance of soft drugs is now high enough that a mainstream Hollywood comedy can feature protagonists smuggling tons of marijuana into the United States without raising much of an eyebrow. It helps a lot that the film is both broad and amiable enough to soften the blow: Our hero-dealer (Jason Sudeikis, making a career out of playing lovable pushers and likable perverts) is nowhere as bad as the other dealers in the story, and at its core this is a film about misfits building a family together, which pretty much fits Middle-America’s core values. Not that this is a PG-rated film by any stretch of the imagination: it earns its R rating through copious drug references, sexual content, comic violence and pervasive profanity. However, We’re the Miller seems almost innocuous compared to some of its gross-out R-rated comic brethrens of a decade ago: it’s never mean-spirited, keeps its wilder references implied rather than demonstrated (for instance, while the entire plot is drug-based, you never see anyone doing drugs) and eventually builds toward the kind of conclusion that everyone can cheer for. The jokes are numerous enough that some will stick even when others won’t, earning enough chuckles to make the film a success for nearly everyone. While We’re the Millers may not be as hilarious as it could have been, and suffers from Jennifer Aniston’s bland screen persona (she earns a laugh when revealed as a stripper, but it’s a laugh at her expense –many other actresses could have done quite a bit better in this role), it’s good enough to keep audiences satisfied, and that’s in keeping with the film’s place as a big Hollywood comedy.
(On-demand Video, April 2012) I’m never too sure whether I should be annoyed or relieved when mainstream Hollywood comedies end up neutering their daring premises with innocuous plot developments. Audiences don’t like to be unnerved when they’re supposed to be laughing, and I suppose that I’m no exception. Nonetheless, there’s something maddening in seeing a film about married couples agreeing to mutual indiscretion racing to a conclusion when nothing really happened. (Actually, it may be best to ignore the fact that the one woman who did something, albeit briefly, ends up punished by a car crash that ends up not much more than a plot point for her husband’s emotional growth. But such is the way of Hollywood, and this includes the emotionally-retarded male protagonists who are supposed to earn our sympathy. The gender politics here aren’t particularly even-handed here, which is keeping in mind the target audience of the film.) Still, Hall Pass has a number of laughs in reserve, especially when the protagonists can’t even begin to imagine how to take advantage of the freedom they’ve bargained for themselves. Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis (who, in-between this film, Horrible Bosses and A Good Old Fashioned Orgy, is carving himself a bit of a niche as a sex-obsessed protagonist) are both as charming as they can be in characters who are barely emotionally adults, although it’s Richard Jenkins who gets the biggest laughs in short appearances as an even older and less mature professional bachelor. The problem is that by ultimately playing it safe, Hall Pass doesn’t do anything that warrants any lasting attention. Despite a few out-of-place graphic gags, it’s a disposable comedy destined to the bargain bin.
(On Cable TV, April 2012) Don’t be fooled by the pornish title; this R-rated ensemble comedy is about as good-natured as sex-themed mainstream comedies can, er, come. Never mind the “pervasive sexual content” promised by the film’s R rating, the mostly-amusing nudity, porn film snippets or the standard-issue profanity: This is a movie about thirty-something post-teenagers trying to hold on to high school friendships in the face of increasing “adult” commitments by putting together an orgy before a summer getaway destination is taken away from them. To its credit, the film does confront the uneasiness of such a situation, and the way such an event is likely to alter friendships along the way. (It’s a comedy, though, so don’t worry over-much.) The laughs are closer to chuckles, but they’re numerous enough to make the film worthy a look for those in the mood for an amiable but not-too-explicit sex comedy. Jason Sudeikis is likable as the lead, but it’s really an ensemble effort that makes the film work as a comedy. Don’t expect wall-to-wall indecency, and the film eventually works itself to a good-natured conclusion.
(In theaters, July 2011) Two and a half years after a catastrophic global meltdown, movies are starting to reflect the soul-deadened guilt of those who kept their jobs. Playing heavily on wish-fulfillment, Horrible Bosses dares to ask how much better life would be if people could just get rid of their awful supervisors in the most definitive way possible. It takes strong protagonists to keep our sympathy in such circumstances, and Horrible Bosses get two out of three in that matter: Jason Bateman continues his streak of playing endearing everymen, while Jason Sudeikis somehow manages to make us look past his character’s horn-dog issues. As the remaining member of the trio of oppressed worker looking to dispatch their bosses, however, Charlie Day is almost more annoying than useful, and the tic of reverting to a high-pitched whine whenever things go wrong is annoying the moment it happens a second time. Then there’s the other half of the deal: the bosses. Fortunately, that’s where Horrible Bosses wins a perfect score: Kevin Spacey is deliciously slimy as the kind of arrogant sociopath that climbs up the corporate ladder; Colin Farrell is unrecognizable as a loser working to extract as much loot out of the family company before it goes bankrupt; whereas Jennifer Aniston is all sex-appeal with bangs, toned body and racoon eyes as a crazed harasser. They deserve their fate; the protagonists have suffered enough; and the film can stand on its own. It does get better as it develops, mostly due to some clever writing, sympathetic performances (including Jamie Foxx as a criminal consultant), a few twists in which real world problems become comic plot points, and a conclusion that neatly wraps things up. While Horrible Bosses won’t stick around in popular culture, it’s a decent example of the kind of film it wants to be: It’s amoral without being offensive, edgy without grossing-out and polished to an extent that it leaves little if any unpleasant aftertaste. Good enough for entertainment; consecration isn’t an essential prerequisite with a good-time comedy like this.