Thursday, April 18, 2024

Moviegoing: Why “The Butler” Is a Film and “We’re The Millers” Is Not


I went to the movies this afternoon because the Yankees were rained out. My parents wanted to see “The Butler” so I drove them over to Bullard Square in Fairfield, Connecticut. Since I’ve seen “The Butler” a couple of times, I bought a ticket for “We’re the Millers,” which was starting ten minutes later. The 4pm show for “The Butler” was about a third full when my parents got settled, and bid them adieu. In the theater for “Millers” there were about 20 people. The comedy with Jennifer Aniston and Jason Sudeikis has been a big hit, and I hadn’t seen it so I figured: Why not? How bad could it be?

Actually it quite atrocious. Badly made, to start with. The production looks one dimensional.Flat. There’s no depth. (It reminded me of “Mamma Mia,” another New Line movie.) So that was a bad sign. And then people started talking.

“We’re the Millers” is supposed to be a comedy. I was in a theater with 20 other people. No one was laughing. People were talking on the screen but in the audience people were whispering to each other. A couple were using their phones. Why? Because from the start, “We’re the Millers” is preposterous. Not outrageous. It’s dull. It’s directed without any point of view. And you can feel it from the beginning. It’s a contrived situation about an unsympathetic character: a marijuana dealer named Dave (Sudeikis) who’s just a loser. He has no finer qualities or aspirations. And right at the start he insults an old college friend who has a job, a family, and an SUV. I’m surprised the white suburban audience it’s been made for doesn’t realize they’re being ridiculed.

Next we meet Aniston’s stripper, Rose. She’s at least two decades too old for the role. She seems grim. And there’s immediate unfunny discussions, graphically, about sleeping with the customers. At some point, Luiz Guzman shows up as a Mexican border patrol cop who may accept sexual favors from either Sudeikis or Aniston if one of them will “suck his dick.” Or something. Sudeikis describes this as “Sophie’s Choice.” That’s when I knew I’d be leaving.

I did leave, about an hour into it. Watching “We’re the Millers” is a painful exercise. I felt like a nail was being driven into my head during this lost hour. It’s not that it’s shockingly offensive. It’s boringly offensive. I’s coarse and vulgar in the wrong way.  The screenplay was set up for jokes that couldn’t land because they had no launch. When characters are simply mean-spirited to each other, you’re not going to like them either.

Is this what comedy has become? I love movies like “Airplane!” and “There’s Something About Mary” and “Borat” because they’re not only outrageous. They’re also empathetic. And maybe too it’s this generation of comic actors. I don’t have a soft spot for Ed Helms the way I do for Bill Murray. I don’t think I ever will.

Plus “We’re the Millers” would have worked as a subversive indie film. As a big studio effort, it bewilders me.  The characters seem like they were drawn up originally as snarky, satiric, underworld people who might bond and form a family in the loosest sense after mocking family values. But as players in a studio film, they can only go far. It felt as though they’d been re-drafted to fit the mainstream, and were drained of all actual personality.

I walked back into “The Butler” just as Forest Whitaker came home to tell Oprah that JFK had been shot. To my surprise, the theater was packed. There was one empty seat, on the aisle, in the back. Apparently it had filled up five minutes before showtime. Within seconds, I was back in the story. Danny Strong’s screenplay is so strong, so well built, and you climb into it as if it were Cadillac DeVille. The story purrs. Oprah Winfrey just remains a revelation. Whitaker is sublime. The score is lovely. And seeing “The Butler” for a third or fourth time, you do pick up on the quick cuts back and forth as the civil rights story interweaves with the people in the White House.

It’s always instructive to see movies with paying audiences, and not just view screenings with media types. I saw how this group responded to the film. They were enthralled. Jokes landed properly. They loved the black and white early 70s one piece outfits worn by Whitaker and Winfrey. Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda commanded their attention as the Reagans. And when the movie ended, there was applause, genuine applause. Many stayed and watched the credits. You felt as if your time had not been wasted.

And for that, all I can is, thank you. Life is too short for “We’re the Millers.” And it’s not moviemaking. It’s just a cynical attempt to see how far crudeness can go. “The Butler” feels like a great meal or a wonderful conversation.

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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