Home Movies Moviegoing: Why “The Butler” Is a Film and “We’re The Millers” Is...

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.

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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.
16 replies to this post
  1. I don’t ever respond to these types of articles but this time I just had to. Mainly because people are thanking you for saving them from seeing a “bad” movie based on your inaccuracies. You say you left after the first hour and you obviously weren’t paying attention while you were there. My first thought as I read your article was, ” Did this guy even watch the movie?” The movie does have a somewhat slow and uneventful buildup, But beyond that, your critique is based on what appears to be your faulty memory.

    First, the college friend insulted Dave, not the other way around. He was putting Dave down for not being a family man or changing since college and that no one would know or care if he died. Even to the point of the friend saying, ” No offense, I meant that in a good way”

    Secondly, Yes, Jennifer Aniston’s character, Rose is too old to be a stripper ( or at least a well paid one ) But that is precisely the point that you don’t have the ability to comprehend. Both Rose and Dave are two people who got locked into their old ways, and as a result have become cynical of family life but they both want a family somewhere deep inside them. Hence the subtle clues that you obviously didn’t pick up on and how the fake family starts to act like an actual family, albeit dysfunctional, as the movie progresses.

    Finally, and I could go on but I don’t want to spoil the movie for those who don’t take your bad advice, the “Sophie’s Choice” reference does not take place during the Mexican border patrol cop scene. It happens when Dave and Kenny try to rescue Emma Roberts’ character from some street thugs.

    Overall, I agree the movie won’t win any oscars. Crude humor? Yes. It will, however, provide ample entertainment value and laughter for those who like this sort of comedy. Which I would put in the same vein as “The Hangover”

    Am I a huge fan of any of the actors in this movie, or even these types of movies? Not necessarily. Although I did enjoy it and I did laugh out loud several times. The problem I have with your article is that you have such a strong negative opinion of a film that you admittedly didn’t watch until the end. And especially the fact that several of your reasons for disliking it are based on things you obviously just didn’t get. And even worse, on factually wrong information. But as you once worked at Fox News, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by that.

  2. I am calling shenanigans. You compare a movie that is just kicks and giggles to The Butler? I saw We’re the Millers at an early matinee when it first came out, and it was packed with people of all ages, and they were laughing hysterically, especially the senior citizens. Slow to start, but you should have stayed through in order to make a fair assessment. If you stayed, you would have found the love, the compassion, and the message in the end where he did the right thing, and they stand by one another. All broken and alone, together they become a family. And I tend to stay away from that type of humor. In the end, I found it endearing. Borat, I would not even go see. As for The Butler? I don’t get the love fest on this one. A mini series back in the 70’s called Back Stairs At The White House was far better. In this movie, with the exception of Forrest Whitaker and the two portraying his sons, the casting was deplorable. Mocking and self serving. Every time I saw Oprah, I thought…oh…there is Oprah. And I like Oprah in general. But, when she slapped her son, it was an exact replica and intonation of her part in The Color Purple. Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan? Please…. Depicting Reagan as a bigot, when he was the one responsible for the character getting a better wage and promotion? When Reagan was more concerned about what was going on in his own backyard with discrimnation vs Africa at the time, we portray him as uncaring? How about LBJ in the bathroom with his two dogs. For what? We never need to see the POTUS on the toilet, no matter who is portrayed. Artistic license gone to far. I respectfully disagree with your assessment. You compared an apple to an orange, for which there is no comparison, except that they are both fruit. In this case, both were movies. Hollywood will celebrate big with The Butler, because like Lincoln, no one in that liberal love fest will stand up and say…. ewww…. bad makeup on the Presidents, and weak storyline. We could have done better and we should do better. It was a heinous time in our history, and our youth need to see epic story telling to fully understand what our black ancestors have endured. Not this. Go find Back Stairs at The White House with Cicely Tyson. That movie was brilliant!

  3. Thanks for the warning, Roger. As I was reading, I had flashbacks to “Meet the Fokkers.” My wife and I left the theater halfway through that one, neither of us feeling any connection to the story or the characters.

  4. I started reading, but after a while I just stopped. Because… it’s boring. I went to The Millers last Sunday. And had a blast. It’s no ‘Movie’. No. It will not win any Oscars. No. It will not go down in history as one of the great movies of all time.No.

    But Roger, seriously… why spend so much text on such a simple comedy? It’s entertainment, it’s silly, it’s stupid, it’s cheap jokes. And I loved every minute of it. Saying you like Borat to make your arguments more valid is a nice attempt. But don’t make it all so important.

    It’s just a fun ride. And it’s at 7.2 at IMDB, so I think it’s safe to say I’m not the only one who disagrees with you. Also, with a budget of 37 million and already at 152 million worldwide (while not even being released everywhere yet) it’s a hit. Simple, just like the movie.

  5. Roger: Jennifer Aniston is sadly picking garbage films time and time again and we know she’s capable of more. I remember how much promise she had when she played the downtrodden wife in ‘The Good Girl’, but it’s been downhill ever since. Hey on another topic: did you enjoy the documentary: ’20 Feet From Stardom’ as much as I did? If you posted anything about it – I missed it. Thanks.

  6. Can you explain why We’re the Millers have been making a lot of profits for the producers? In less than a month, it’ve made more than 150 millions worldwide.

  7. Wow- now that is a review! I think there was more specific “criticism” (in the positive sense of the word) than on RottenTomatoes.

    You might want to set up a nom de guerre to avoid the retaliation of the publicists and get into the reviewing on a regular basis.

  8. Was this article really necessary? I mean both these films are weeks old and are BOTH doing well at the box office. Not to mention the obvious: they are both VERY different films. Meant for different audiences & to invoke different experiences, emotions. They are not comparable in terms of their film-making – but they weren’t meant to be either!

    So you didn’t take to WTM – plenty of other moviegoers have though. And from its A Cinema score I would say the jokes are landing with the majority. Perhaps you shouldn’t have waited 4 weeks to see it with a small audience who apparently are in the minority in terms of their reaction? Even more perplexing is why you would take that faulty set up as a gauge for its success. More importantly, it doesn’t come across as constructive criticism, but rather mere snark and an attempt to belittle its clear box office victory the way you draw the comparison between the two.

    Why is it that critics are so quick to over-analyze and overly critique films like WTM? To nit-pick every element for a basis in reality that was never meant to be there. Some films are meant to be a fun ride. People want to be entertained in different ways, and that includes by films like WTM which is August’s #1 film, and Aniston’s 6th career $100+ million domestic grosser (5th in the last 7 years). You may not think such a film deserves any audience, but more people likely don’t think it deserved this offensive article either.

  9. Many thanks for the heads up re: ‘We’re The Millers’ Roger. After hearing so much bad press about the movie I had avoided it, then on discovering it was close to $100 million dollars at the US box office, I thought to myself, maybe the critics had it wrong and was seriously considering going to see it. Now I’ll just pass and wait patiently for ‘The Butler’ which is yet to be released here in the UK.

  10. I loved We’re the Millers and I have no desire to see The Butler…way too depressing. Saw The Millers twice…hysterical.
    Not everything has to be super high brow to be enjoyed. Some of us just want a good laugh, sorry the people at your theater were sticks in the mud. I saw We’re the Millers for the second time tonight and the theater was packed and people were laughing!

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