When it comes to comedies, Sundance has crowned both the deserving and the undeserving. Truly off-beat fare like Bottle Rocket and Napoleon Dynamite are among the deserving diamonds plucked from the indie rough. Little Miss Sunshine however, is experiencing more irrational exuberance than Happy, Texas.
Immured in a Volkswagon of indie quirkiness, this movie piles on coincidence and cliche in lieu of character development or plot. It is paint-by-numbers screenwriting, directing and even acting at its smug indie worst. From the contrived initial set-up that puts a dysfunctional family in a van on their way to a pre-teen beauty pageant to the dance number that makes them functional again, it is nothing more than a collection of rehashed, soul-less japes and eccentricities of character that add up to a big pile of movie mush.
Did I mention that I’m the only one who seems to hate this movie? Read on for a spoiler-filled list of why you too should hate this movie, and the few moments that are exceptions.
1. Steve Carrell is not a convicing suicide or Proust scholar. We’ve seen manic comedians play restraint. When Robin Williams did it in One Hour Photo it was all kinds of creepy. Carrell’s conversion to living seems to happen and unhappen as the plot needs it. As for his being a Proust scholar, apparently we are meant to be convinced by his yelling, “I’m a pre-eminent Proust scholar!” every time he pushes the van. You know in your heart that he’s a Proust scholar because a) it’s quirky and b) it lets him give that speech at the end.
2. Ditto Paul Dano’s character’s Nietzche obsession, which disappears after two minutes of quirky character establishment. Let’s allow for a moment that he wouldn’t have realized he was colorblind for fifteen years — why were there eye-test brochures in an Emergency Room waiting room? Hello screenwriting of convenience! You know where there are eye-test brochures? At an optometrist, that’s where.
3. Abigail Breslin I will admit is pretty good. It’s kind of sad when she can act circles around Alan Arkin and Toni Collette and Greg Kinnear. Her moment where she convinces her brother to come back with just a hug is the movie’s only sappy moment that earns its sap. As the character in whose arc the whole plot is invested, you’d think that we’d get a moment to see her decide it was okay she lost the competition. Doesn’t happen.
4. Toni Collette and Greg Kinnear live in a nice house in Albuquerque but they “can’t afford to fly” Olive to California for the weekend? It’s called a mortgage. They let you take out more than one. The set-up for this movie, which takes most of the first act, is so contrived I’m going to have to stop myself from writing an essay going into every nuance of contrivance. a) Assuming that they really couldn’t afford to fly and that driving a gas-chugging van is really that much cheaper, why — other than to make the plot happen — does everyone need to go along. May I suggest: Grandpa wants to go because he coached her. Mom doesn’t trust grandpa to be responsible. Dad sees the drive as an opportunity to stop at Scottsdale. Steve Carrell’s character can’t be left alone. And what about Paul Dano’s quirkily mute Dwayne? Leave him. Or make him a party animal instead of a mute so he can’t be trusted not to wreck the house while he’s gone. With some basic motivational re-alignment the script becomes believable — at least until…
5. WEEKEND AT BERNIES. Are you kidding me? Are you really kidding me? Only the Coen Brothers could pull something like this off. I might say it was worth it for the line, “He’s in the trunk of our car” but even that line has to be set up by a contrived question.
6. Contrived meeting of Carrell and his nemesis and former lover while he is buying porn in a town none of them live in. ‘Nuff said.
7. The filmmakers think porn is so funny, they bring it back a second time when the cop pulls them over. Greg Kinnear’s convenient freakout leads into the discovery and, hilarity, there’s gay porn mixed in, which makes the cop beat a hasty retreat. Oh homophobia, let us mock you gently rather than taking you seriously.
8. Minor point, but when was the last time you got chocolate ice cream “a la mode”? This is mainly an example of how the husband/wife directors are striving way too hard for quirkiness on even the smallest level.
9. All the great Shakespeare comedies end in a big dance number. It makes the audience feel great about what they just saw. When it is unearned, as it is here, it’s just petty manipulation. How convenient that there is a scary Latino man to cheer for them when the time is comically ripe. Olive’s dance is hard to see as funny after the creepy real contestants we’ve just witnessed, who are selling pre-pubescent sex appeal just as overtly.
10. The van. What a metaphor for this movie. Painted the movie’s theme color of yellow, breaking down at all the plot-convenient times, with a horn that’s stuck on obvious and annoying.
First-time screenwriter Michael Arndt got paid $250,000 for this screenplay, which I reckon is about $249,999.32 more than what the paper it is printed on is worth. Of course I have to mean that facetiously, since the movie was purchased by a major distributor and is going to make a lot of people a lot of money. As baffled as I am by how the movie got made in the first place, I’m more baffled by the enormous positive response this celluloid sham is evoking. Are we in that much need of indie quirk that any old quirk will do? If you haven’t seen this movie yet (you must really like spoilers), ask yourself this: Do I want to see a movie about a dysfunctional family taking a roadtrip in a VW van to take a daughter to a beauty pageant? Is there any way such a story can be executed so as not to have ten cliches per page? Is there any way the journey could be worth the inevitable outcome. You don’t know the disappointment I felt in the theater last night when I realized where this movie was going. After you visualize what’s coming in Little Miss Sunshine, you realize there are more laughs in Triumph of the Will. And that’s something only Nietzche could appreciate.