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Ebiri: There Is a Bland Emptiness at the Center of We’re the Millers

Can somebody please explain Jason Sudeikis's appeal? He always seemed like one of the weaker links in an already-weak Saturday Night Live lineup – the bland, sorta-handsome guy used mostly as a straight man, who displayed little comic ingenuity when left to his own devices. The most promising aspect of his comic persona is his insincerity; he’s good at giving off the sense that he never really means what he says. But compared to a guy like Will Arnett, or Chevy Chase in his prime, Sudeikis’s disingenuousness is a very impoverished one, his surface blandness masking merely more inner blandness.

It’s that insincerity that probably led to Sudeikis getting cast as David Clark, a Denver slacker and pot dealer who, after getting $43,000 worth of drugs and money stolen from him, is forced to smuggle some pot across the border from Mexico. His ingenious scheme is to hire several fellow down-and-outers to pretend to be his family, as he correctly assumes that an annoying all-American tourist family crossing the border will arouse less suspicion than one solitary dude doing so. So he convinces Rose (Jennifer Aniston), a stripper who lives in his building, Kenny (Will Poulter), a painfully-straitlaced geek who idolizes him, and Casey (Emma Roberts), a street kid, to pose as his family. They hop in a gigantic RV and go off to retrieve what turns out to be a massive amount of weed from some Mexican drug lords whose relationship to David’s own kingpin boss proves a tad more complicated.

It’s a predictable setup, but it has potential. And it does yield some occasionally solid laughs, mainly thanks to the supporting cast. As David’s impossibly corporate scuzz of a boss, Ed Helms gets the film’s best scenes and has the most energy: He’s enthusiastic and bewildered by all the money and power he has. As the two oddball kids pretending to be the Millers’ offspring, a refreshingly profane Roberts and the cringingly dorky Poulter also have their moments; she’s appropriately loose and jaded, he’s eager-to-please and adorably tense. As the stripper/mom, Aniston’s report card is a little more mixed: She does fine pretending to bring her “family” into a prayer circle, or giving out casserole tips, but whenever she has to get wild or unpredictable, she falters. There’s a pretty funny charades scene where Kenny attempts to draw a skateboard and all Rose sees is variations on a penis. But it’s not funny because she’s a stripper who can’t hide her stripper-ness; it’s funny because she still seems kind of square as she yells out, “Big black dick … black cock … black hawk … Black Hawk Down!” Watching her, you keep thinking that the movie would make more sense the other way: If she were playing an actual suburban mom forced to do terrible things like run drugs or strip to save her life.

Part of the problem here is that at heart Aniston and Sudeikis are both foils looking for their wilder, more volatile counterparts. What the movie needs is someone who can effectively convey a hint of the degenerate — Melissa McCarthy, say, or Jim Carrey in his prime. And in Sudeikis’s case, quite aside from not being particularly funny, he also doesn’t convince on any level: Not as a guy who never grew out of his college career dealing weed, not as a selfish cheat who lies to his fake family to get them to go along with his scheme, and certainly not as the changed man who realizes that maybe he does want a real family after all. The result is a loose conglomeration of jokes that never really holds together: Funny in parts, but overwhelmed by the bland emptiness where its protagonist should be.

Photo: Michael Tackett/Warner Bros.