Posted on 4/15/13 08:49 PM
The institution of the dysfunctional family has been fodder for a thousand independent films. It's a dependable old device on which filmmakers often hang eccentric characters so we won't assume they're clinically insane by their own right.
Dysfunction by itself does not make for great comedy and that's part of my problem with Little Miss Sunshine, a cross-hybrid of American Beauty and National Lampoon's Vacation without the dramatic structure of the first or the belly laughs of the second.
The movie centers on the Hoover family, a small family of dysfunctional misfits including Richard (Greg Kinnear), the family patriarch who gives lectures about a 12-step system that can make you successful at anything; Sheryl (Toni Collette), the family matriarch with a sour personality but a strong belief in her family; Dwayne (Paul Dano), a pucker-faced teen who is giving the family the silent treatment until they allow him to enter the Air Force; Frank (Steve Carrell), Sheryl's gay College professor brother whose suicide attempt over a failed romance would probably prompt a better movie; There's Sheryl's dad Edwin, a horny old coot with a passion for sex, drugs and skin rags. And then there's little Olive, whose dream is to win the Little Miss Sunshine contest.
The movie centers on the family's attempts to get Olive to the contest in Redondo Beach via a beat-up old VW Van. It's one of those "movie cars" where the family has to push it to get it rolling then has to chase it to get in and when the thing is no longer useful to the plot, the door falls off.
All the performances in the movie are fine but they're trapped in their predetermined personality traits that aren't that interesting. The exception is little Abigail Breslin, a Olive who is a wide-eyed kid who asks questions and seems filled with a certain wonderment. In the film's only winning moment she asks Grandfather Alan Arkin in which she asks him very sweetly "Grampa? Am I pretty". He very lovingly answers "You're the movie beautiful girl in the world". I wish the rest of the movie could have found the same notes.
By having the movie focus on a beauty pageant, I suspect that the point was to take shots at those disturbing Under-12 displays that turn little girls into Bratz Dolls and remind one - unnervingly - of Jon Benet Ramsey. Olive's embarrassing dance number, a half jiggle-fest, half striptease to Rick James' "Super Freak" left me wondering what the writers were thinking.
My basic problem with Little Miss Sunshine is that it's just not funny. I like road pictures that are about human discovery but when it's a comedy, I expect a few laughs. The movie is less of a comedy and more of a study of human nature. But with character this bizarre, I think I would have preferred the comedy, there just aren't any laughs in the movie. I'm not expecting the stupidity of RV, but come on, make with the yak yak.