The new comedy We're the Millers features a much-hyped scene involving Jennifer Aniston. This could be viewed as proof that Hollywood women over 40 are still relevant, which would be very empowering.
Or it could be viewed as proof that Hollywood women over 40 are still relevant as long as they can credibly wrap themselves around a pole wearing nothing but lace panties and a demi-bra.
So, maybe not so empowering after all.
In this raunchy road trip, four mismatched screw-ups -- including Jason Sudeikis as a dime-bag dope dealer and Aniston as a hard-headed, hard-bodied stripper -- pretend to be an all-American family in order to sneak a weed-packed RV across the U.S-Mexico border. With a strange mix of smut and sentimentality, the movie is kind of like an R-rated sitcom. Imagine an episode of Friends called "The One Where Rachel Takes Off Her Shirt and Swears a Lot."
At one point, the 44-year-old Aniston drops her suburban soccer-mom disguise -- smart slacks and sensible shoes -- and struts her stuff, stripping right down to her skivvies. This ploy is supposed to confound a Mexican drug lord, which would only work if the Mexican drug lord had led a remarkably sheltered life. Plot-wise, the stripping scene isn't remotely necessary.
But it seems to be compulsory in another sense, as visible proof that Aniston is still a viable Hollywood commodity.
These "I've still got it" scenes are becoming more and more common for Hollywood actresses of a certain age. The 41-year-old Gwyneth Paltrow does a lingerie tease in the upcoming sex-addiction dramedy Thanks for Sharing. Sandra Bullock did her first nude scene at age 44, getting strategically buck-naked in The Proposal (2009). And in the crappy 2011 comedy Just Go With It, Aniston gets into a bizarre hula dance-off with the then-44-year-old Nicole Kidman. This is supposedly a competition between their two characters, but it's hard not to view it as two veteran actresses having a bikini-clad catfight over the depressingly diminished pool of parts for 40-something women.
It wasn't always this way. Meryl Streep celebrated her 40s more or less clothed -- playing in literary adaptations, trying out a few new accents. Go back another generation, and Bette Davis faced down her 40s by starring in the fabulous, Oscar-winning All About Eve.
A lot of the promotional media for We're the Millers has covered Aniston's preparations for becoming strip-worthy. She reportedly doubled her yoga sessions -- the only exercise female Hollywood celebrities seem to admit to -- and went on a diet of lean protein and greens. Her food regimen was so strict, Aniston reveals in an awesome bit of humblebragging, that sometimes she just had to cheat by eating a kale chip.
Yes, that's right, on this diet, eating a kale chip qualifies as naughty.
Audiences are fascinated by these reports of off-screen deprivation, and they want to see the hard evidence onscreen. During Aniston's Big Reveal, co-star Sudeikis actually breaks the fourth wall and stares at the audience with this "Huh, huh? Isn't she hot?' look.
Aniston does look fit, lean and tanned. She also looks as if she's been sanded and then shellacked. For a 44-year-old, she has a curious lack of texture.
As a pole dancer, she's impressive but a bit brisk. Purposeful, professional but not wildly sexy, the one-time TV good girl looks as if she just wants to get the routine over with so she can list "Stripping" on her resume.
It seems like a pretty paltry ambition for a veteran actress. At age 44, wouldn't it be better to explore emotional nakedness rather than the physical kind?
It would certainly involve fewer kale chips.