When the obscenity-spewing, heroin-snorting, yet compulsively likable grandfather unexpectedly meets an unfortunate end at about the halfway mark in directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' new film Little Miss Sunshine, it really sinks in: this is a comedy that isn't kidding around. At least not completely. It is, however, remarkably effective at generating an authentic sense of warm, fuzzy closeness that the family, in the abstract, is often idealized as possessing.
As is so common in film, our conceptions of the characters reach their fullest expression only in the end. Patriarch Richard (Greg Kinnear) may not, after all, reach fame and fortune with his embarrassingly impassioned "9-Step Program" for becoming a "winner" in all things worldly, but at least he has his wife (Toni Collette) who just might be getting over her nasty smoking habit, and button-cute daughter (Abigail Breslin), around whose beauty-queen aspirations the film's loopy, digressive plot revolves.
Unfortunately for this improbably neurotic cast of characters, the pageant is in Redondo Beach, California, and their home lies in Albuquerque, several hundred miles away. Faster than you can say "what a wonderful excuse for family bonding through heartwarmingly ridiculous episodic encounters with perfect strangers!" — the clan is off on a multi-state adventure of... memorable proportions.
Along for the ride for moral support — and, oh yes, because his recent suicide attempt necessitates constant supervision — is Steve Carell as studiously impassive yet startlingly vulnerable Uncle Frank, who, as he is so fond of saying, is "the nation's foremost Proust scholar." Though perhaps not so much since he fell for a male graduate student and was summarily dismissed from his professorship. It's a role miles away in terms of complexity — and, arguably, of quality — from Mr. Carell's last one in The 40 Year Old Virgin.