Little Miss Sunshine
Dr. Falken: "I could never get Joshua to learn the most important lesson: futility. That there's a time when you should just give up."
Jennifer Mack: "What kind of lesson is that?"
The "snakes on a plane" one-sentence pitch for Little Miss Sunshine would be "Slums of Beverly Hills meets National Lampoon's Vacation...with an edge."
The premise is straightforward, almost obvious: take a borderline dysfunctional family and put them on the road for the sake of the small, cute one. Have everything go wrong and let the characters work in the situation.
Basically, "Apollo 13" minus Tom Hanks plus Greg Kinnear minus the moon plus Redondo Beach.
As with all things, it's about execution more than inspiration. A good many broad, outrageously comic elements appear in the material, but the cast does such a good job that these elements seem almost unnecessary.
What the ensemble achieves is a near epic meditation on the central theme of the comedy of family errors: persistence. Each character has a unique take on persistence.
Greg Kinnear's can-do, win-or-die-trying biz dev dadbot is the second male lead in two weeks to lampoon the tunnel-visioned "stay the course" persistence of George W. Bush. There's a line between persistence and stubborness, between commitment and blindness. Whether it's NASCAR victories, Iraq or the Little Miss Sunshine pagent, we all can relate to putting winning ahead of understand WHAT is at stake.
And as events unfold and reality dawns on Kinnear (especially near the end), I couldn't help be catch a hint of George Bush's face when he first heard about 9/11. The dawning realization that things are not as you imagined.
Toni Collette is his long-suffering wife. She expends a great deal of energy spackling over the damage Kinnear appears to be doing to the family with his judgmental success piety...success which she is starting to notice HE fails to achieve.
At the beginning of the film, she agrees to take guardianship of her brother Frank, who has just attempted suicide after an unhappy love affair and professional setback. From the first few frames, it's clear that she invests MUCH more in Frank's survival than he probably ever did.
Carrell, for all his suicidal nihilism, invests a great deal of ego in being the "number one Proust scholar in America." When that status is challenged, he finds himself without recourse.
Dwayne, the Nietzche-reading angry older son has taken a vow of silence in anticipation of entering flight school to become a test pilot. What the relationship is between silence and flight is not made clear, but who says persistence needs a point?
Alan Arkin as the heroin-addicted, porn-loving, chicken-hating grandfather offers the kind of sage wisdom on persistence you expect from the grandfathers of the world: fuck a lot of women,the only thing stupider than taking drugs when you're young is not taking them when you're old and don't let fear of failure stop you from trying. I basically received this same advice from MY grandmother, so I can relate.
And, of course, little miss sunshine herself, who is ironically the antithesis of the cliched child beauty star: she is not vain, dresses in age-appropriate costumes, spends little time obsessing over the contest itself and takes more joy in ice cream than in winning.
There are a number of literary and cinematic references in the film. The family's name, Hoover, and the eldest son's name Dwayne is a reference to Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions and the potential investor Greg Kinnear is trying to court is named "Stan Grossman," a reference to the money man in Fargo.
But my favorite reference comes late in the movie when a character, reacting to some bad news, jumps out of the VW van and rolls down a dry, weeded embankment. This is a recreation of one of the opening shots in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (which featured the same van), where the wheelchair-bound Franklin rolls down a similar embankment.
That moment reminded me that, for all the hardships this family suffered, things could have gone a lot worse. At least no one ended up being carved up into sausage. Because, hey, winners don't let themselves be carved up into sausage, do they?
Four stars, Jason Bob sez if you don't want to check it out...that's fine...but then you'll be a loser, and that's not very fun...is it? I didn't think so.