Monday, August 28, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine

by Jackrabbit Slim

I went into Little Miss Sunshine with high hopes, given the mostly sterling reviews. I came out thinking it was a good film, but not a great one. It's a look at one of the recent staples of film, the dysfunctional family, and an analysis of what makes someone a winner or a loser in life. The dad, Greg Kinnear, is a struggling entrepeneur who gives seminars on how to be a winner. His harried wife is Toni Collette, and their two kids are Paul Dano, an angry loner who has taken a vow of silence until he gets into the Air Force Academy, and Olive, a perky seven-year-old who dreams of becoming a beauty queen. Also in the extended family are a grandpa, Alan Arkin, who soothes his old age with heroin, and the newest member, Steve Carrell, Collette's brother and a Proust scholar, who has just tried to kill himself because his lover has run off with another eminent Proust scholar.

The catalyst that sets off the ensuing zaniness is that Olive, who finished second in a regional beauty pageant, becomes the winner when the actual winner can't make it to the finals. The family now has to get her to California from their home in New Mexico. They embark, bitter feelings and all, in an ancient yellow VW bus, and we're now off on another movie cliche, the road picture.

There are numerous laughs along the way that had the audience I was with laughing out loud, but I was just smiling. A lot of humor is mined from the bus itself, which has to pushed to get started. Kinnear plays such an overbearing prick that he becomes the foil for Cannell, who seems to be very sane for a failed suicide. Arkin, practically begging for a Supporting Actor nomination, really amps up the crotchedly-old-man routine. The script is loaded with implausible plot twists and coincidences that weigh the story down and lead to a climax that is meant to be heartwarming but just seemed too Hallmark card-ish to me. A few problems that I can mention without spoiling: Dano plays a character who hates everyone and buries himself in philosophers like Nietsche. It seems a stretch to me that he would have a goal that is so square as going to a military academy, where conformity would be demanded of him. Also, it seems odd to me that none of the family would have seen Olive's routine for the pageant, which turns out to be such a surprise.

I don't want to be too hard on this film, though, because it does have good dialogue and nice performances by Collette, Dano and Cannell. The direction is straightforward and flat, so the heavy lifting is done by the script and performances. I wanted to like this film more, but it just isn't as good as some of the reviews.


Blogger Jeanine said...

I was one of those audience members that laughed out loud at every joke. I didn't mind it's flaws. It's been a really long time since I've been to a film that made me laugh out loud so much.

8/28/2006 09:33:00 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

I liked it a lot, too. I can see what you're saying, but I very much admired the way that the directors were able to balance on the high wire. This movie was so close to spinning completely out of control, with all the character quirks and zany situations and whatnot, but they managed to keep everyone and everything just under enough control. I didn't think the direction was weak at all, but showed the kind of mastery of tone that a lot of movies like this get way wrong.

I thought Toni Collette was probably the key to that. Her character was the most grounded of the bunch, and served as kind of an anchor. She's usually good, of course, but she really NEEDED to be perfect here. I hope she's remembered come Oscar time.

8/28/2006 05:01:00 PM  
Blogger Professor Wagstaff said...

I saw this today. I can emphasise with a lot of JS's criticims of the film.

(SPOILER warning) There were too many coincdences for my liking, especially Carrel just happening to meet up with his ex-lover at the petrol station.

And the stealing of Grandpa's body was hard to take. As one reviewer observed, it was a rip-off of an incident in the first Chevy Chase 'vacation' film (and it was more funny there).

Also it was hard to believe how Toni Collette's character could ever marry someone as obnoxious as Kinnear's character was. Although to be fair Kinnear's character grows on you as the film progresses and he avoids making the character a caricature.

And there were other implausiabilities and contrivances along the way (like how they got to the pagaent within 2 minutes of the deadline). But despite all that I enjoyed the film quite a bit and despite the concept of a dysfunctional family being a potential source for tediousness, wasn't bored or irriated at any stage.

I think the key to that is that the directors/writer don't try to manufacture likable quirky characters, but are clearly sympathetic to their contradictions and desires and helps the audience develop sympathy and empathy for them.

It's also sharply observant in certain sections. I liked the scene in the hospital post-Grandpa's confirmed death and the cold callousness of the lady who was supposed to support them. And the beauty pageant scenes were well done - illustrating the horrific aspects of it without going into the easy trap of exaggeration.

But while I liked and enjoyed this film quite a bit, it's certainly been overrated (it's already in the IMDB's top 250 films of all time!) and I don't think it will stand up that well to repeat viewings

10/12/2006 02:43:00 AM  

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