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Review: 'We're the Millers' can't fake the laughs

Let's start with the story behind "We're the Millers," the new comedy starring Jennifer Aniston and Jason Sudeikis.

The writers of the very funny "Wedding Crashers," Bob Fisher and Steve Faber, came up with the idea and wrote the first drafts of "The Millers," about a small-time drug dealer who uses a fake family as cover for one major score. Sean Anders and John Morris, who crafted "Hot Tub Time Machine" — also funny, also raunchy — finished the script.

What's mystifying is why anyone thought combining these two writing teams' sensibilities made sense.

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Each pair has different ways of constructing a comic moment. "Wedding Crashers" emerged from the philosophy that you are responsible for your own havoc. "Hot Tub" amused by putting its characters at the mercy of unfortunate events.

It's true that director Rawson Marshall Thurber's high point thus far, 2004's "Dodgeball," is something of a hybrid of the styles. But "We're the Millers" is full of moments that feel as forced as the marriage of convenience — and contrivance — in the movie.

That doesn't mean "Millers" is not occasionally funny — it is. Or that the performances are awful — they aren't. The idea of a road trip in an RV loaded with high-octane pot and a pretend family certainly has some R-rated comic promise.

The film starts small in Denver where David (Sudeikis) is still selling drugs out of his backpack years after his college dorm start. He's got the same look too — longish hair, day-old scruff, worn jeans — and an equally laid-back clientele of soccer moms and the like.

Rose (Aniston) is a stripper with, yes, a heart of gold who lives in his apartment building. They snipe at the mailbox over the money her boyfriend owes him for drugs, so you can see right away the road-trip fights possible with these two.

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Kenny (Will Poulter), the nerdy teen who lives downstairs, sets things in motion. He's ill-equipped for life, and hardly ready for battle, and his attempt to rescue a street kid named Casey (Emma Roberts) demands David step in and save the day. Instead, his drugs and money are snatched and his supplier, a big-deal jerk played by Ed Helms, offers to wipe the slate clean if he'll make a quick run to Mexico to pick up some weed.

David may be a low-level dealer, but he's not an idiot. As the movie finally gets underway he's feeling hopeless, Casey's homeless, Kenny's clueless and Rose is about to be jobless.

Until David alights on the idea that an "all-American" family is the perfect front for drug smuggling. Now he just has to get one.

The dealer, the stripper and the punk-pierced runaway are soon cleaned up and repackaged as a white-bread clan on a family trip. Kenny already fits the bill.

The movie quickly settles into the well-covered terrain of most road movies — the friction that comes with putting humans in confined spaces for long hours, especially when the RV breaks down.

The smuggling twist is there to theoretically add some tension. It does succeed in putting two bad guys — One-Eye (Matthew Willig) and Pablo (Tomer Sisley) — on their trail and provides an excuse to throw in every south-of-the-border stereotype imaginable.

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The underlying idea is that in pretending to be a family, the Millers will actually become a real family. The comedy is embedded in all the various conflicts they're forced to work through.

Unfortunately, many of the jokes implode. The one that involves Rose proving she really is a stripper vies with Kenny's spider-bite incident for most absurd. The running gag with a little bundle of joy provides the most laughs. The detour to deal with the wife-swapping couple is downright weird.

Some of the family-bonding bits are nice — Aniston is good at soothing ruffled feathers, particularly when the kids are involved. And Roberts is believable as a kid who'd love a real family. But the relationships aren't developed enough to cover the shortcomings.

The movie's biggest problem is in its central casting choice. Sudeikis and Aniston are likable in such similar ways — their self-deprecating charm, understated comic delivery, girl- and guy-next-door good looks, fundamental decency. It's as if the actors actually came from the same, stable, sweet, heartland family. But they are definitely not the Millers.

Funny man Sudeikis is still in need to a film role that improves on, or differs from, the "Saturday Night Live" gig he only recently left. And for Aniston, if you were hoping for a well-crafted comedy that suits and stretches the popular "Friends" alum creatively — more along the lines of 2002's "The Good Girl" or 2006's "Friends With Money" than 2010's "The Bounty Hunter" or 2011's "Horrible Bosses" (which didn't serve Sudeikis well either) — the wait continues.

If, however, you've been dying to see how Aniston would handle a stripper pole, "We're the Millers" might be just what you're looking for.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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'We're the Millers'

MPAA rating: R for crude sexual content, pervasive language, drug material and brief graphic nudity

Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes

Playing: In general release

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