The legacy of "There's Something About Mary" is alive and well at the box office this year, and for good reason: as humor gets pushed closer to the edge, the money's been in R-rated shock-comedies.
More than a decade after Ben Stiller“>Ben Stiller zipped up a little too quickly, moviegoers have seen "The Heat's" Sandra Bullock administer an emergency tracheotomy, the "The Hangover III" gang witness a giraffe's decapitation and "This Is the End's" Michael Cera being impaled on a lamp post after an evening of coke and oral sex.
That was only an appetizer for "We're the Millers," which director Rawson Marshall Thurber acknowledges pays homage to the Farrelly brothers' film with another scene that is guaranteed to have male moviegoers crossing their legs even as they erupt in laughter.
It's a series of full-frontal shots that can only be slyly alluded to in television advertising. Will Poulter playing a nerdy neighbor forced to pretend to be Jason Sudeikis' son is the unhappy recipient of a tarantula bite in the crown jewels region.
And Thurber's camera doesn't spare viewers: Instead it takes not one, but two extended looks at Poulter's inflamed left testicle in a sequence that had audiences at a recent test screening clapping and shouting in disbelief.
"As a director, it's very important that I get the tone right, and in this case, I wanted it to be shocking, but not gross," Thurber said. "Sometimes you’ll get a big laugh, but it cheapens the film. Because this wasn't overly mean-spirited, it worked."
It's also good business. Along with comic book movies and sequels, R-rated comedies have become one of the most reliably commercial genres in recent years. Out of the five highest-grossing comedies this year, four are R-rated.
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"These things come in waves, but right now audiences are gravitating towards humor that pushes the boundaries," Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations, told TheWrap.
"We're the Millers" hits theaters on Wednesday and co-stars Jennifer Aniston as an exotic dancer and Emma Roberts as a runaway. The comedy overflows with four-letter words and centers on a group of misfits who pretend to be a nuclear family to smuggle a Winnebago filled with marijuana across the Mexican border.
In addition to Poulter's genital mishap, there's also a gag with a fake baby made of weed and an extended stripping sequence involving Aniston that Thurber quips was inspired by "Carl's Jr.'s commercials and 'Flashdance.'"
Thurber, whose previous biggest hit "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story" was rated PG-13, thinks that a movie as sanitized and broadly appealing as that 2004 Ben Stiller comedy might not get made today.
He said tastes have changed — and he has is own theory about why films like "We're the Millers" must keep upping the ante. He thinks that as television has become more permissive, moviegoers are looking to see something in theaters that they can't get in the comfort of their living rooms.
"PG-13 comedies are struggling, because PG-13 comedy is what you now get on television with 'The Mindy Project,' 'New Girl,' even 'Modern Family,'" he noted. "If you can get that thing for free on your couch, you need to change the comedic value proposition."
That requires what "We're the Millers" producer Chris Bender describes as taboo-shattering set-pieces.
"It's so easy to get lost in the sea of movies that are coming out, so you need to structure your marketing around those adult-oriented water-cooler moments that will get people talking and going to the opening weekend," Bender said.
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"If you make a PG-13 movie, you run the risk of missing the younger crowd because it's not edgy enough," he added. "You need something that will have some clutter-busting appeal."
Though the humor is bawdy and the swear words plentiful, the film ultimately makes audiences care about the four people living on the fringes of society as they form a make-shift family. That underlying humanity is essential, the filmmakers argue.
"If you don’t have heart in a comedy then it’s disposable," Thurber said. "People will laugh all the way through it and then they’ll forget about it before they validate their parking. I want to make comedies that make people laugh, but that still have just enough heart to make you care."
In the case of "We're the Millers," it may touch the heart — but it's the balls that most moviegoers will remember.