By Carl Kozlowski
Identity is a tricky thing, the summation of a lifetime of choices and random circumstances all adding up to create a narrative that we put forth before the world to define who we are. And the older we get in life, the more we are locked in by the perceptions people have of us.
Two very different films in theaters this week take a comedic look at what might happen if we decide to rewrite our life stories and start over completely.
Blue Jasmine is the latest in the annual offerings from Woody Allen, and takes the high road in blending sharp comic dialogue and characters with a devastatingly serious portrait of a woman losing her mind while trying to claw her way back from sudden ruin. Meanwhile, We’re The Millers marks the very funny yet utterly lowbrow return of Rawson Marshall Thurber to the director’s chair after nearly a decade of obscurity following his 2004 debut smash Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story.
In Jasmine, Cate Blanchett delivers what will likely be the performance to beat for Best Actress at next year’s Oscars, playing an upper-crust woman who is forced to live with her blue-collar sister when her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) is discovered to be a Bernie Madoff-style con artist whose empire is crashing around him. To make matters worse, Hal committed suicide in prison and left her to take the blame for his improprieties, a fact that inspires her college-age son to abandon her forever as well.
This is dark stuff, but ever since his classic 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen has proven himself able to juggle tonally divergent storylines with aplomb. And so it is that Jasmine’s attempts to start over amid the low-rent lifestyle of her sister and the men that she drifts among (including Andrew Dice Clay in a shockingly good performance) also create terrific comedy.
It’s refreshing to see Allen pushing his comfort zone in his late ‘70s, this time filming in San Francisco and drawing rich portraits of the working-class and even children for the first time in memory. Audiences should also find comfort in knowing that they are in the hands of a master playing at the top of his game, and thankful to have an intelligent comedy available amid the silly summer-movie season.
We’re the Millers offers no such promise of class or pretension, just a great 100 minutes of solid laughs generously ladled across a fairly innovative core premise. The story centers around a Denver-based marijuana dealer named David (Jason Sudeikis) who’s pushing 40 and showing no signs of settling down.
But when he is robbed of more than $60,000 in cash and a big brick of pot, his lead supplier Brad Gurdlinger (Ed Helms) offers him a deal to bring back millions of dollars’ worth of marijuana from across the Mexican border by the end of the weekend. If he accomplishes the daring task, David will have his debt wiped clean and take home an extra $100,000 for his trouble. If he doesn’t, he will be killed.
When he hits upon the idea pretending to be a tourist and transporting all the pot in a giant RV, David realizes he has to find a believable fake family that will make DEA officials look the other way. And so he recruits a neighbor who’s a stripper (Jennifer Aniston) to be his wife, the nerdy teenage virgin who lives downstairs from him to be his son, and a runaway teen girl (Emma Roberts) to be his daughter, setting off a comically insane series of often raunchy shenanigans.
We’re the Millers is a sterling example of a genre that Hollywood is actually getting right these days: The R-rated action comedy. Thurber keeps the ace script’s action moving briskly, while the cast delivers hilarious performances across the board, with Sudeikis building on his string of roles in which he says and does utterly awful things in very funny fashion.
It’s definitely not family viewing, but Millers offers a sharp satire of a family that would certainly be fun to have some laughs with. And in a summer of movies that are bloated misfires and failures, that’s more than enough for a good time.