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Movie Review: Little Miss Sunshine

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Little Miss Sunshine is a real crowd pleaser. The afternoon I saw it, the audience was just about bursting with sheer glee. It’s definitely the Indie Hit of the Year, like Sideways, March of the Penguins, or Brokeback Mountain were in previous seasons. I’m glad people are enjoying it. I had a fairly good time myself.

So why do I feel a compulsion to air my rather strong misgivings about this movie? It’s not that I like to rain on a parade, but some people seem to be taking the film very seriously (for a comedy) and claiming great things for it. I think it’s a really minor piece of work. I’ll try to explain.

First, let’s talk about the movie’s one unarguable strong point: the cast. Nearly all the performances are top notch. It’s true of many indie hits: the acting is much better than the material and gives some charm and energy to what might otherwise be just quirky cardboard. Who would have guessed, from their beginnings on TV, that Steve Carrell and Greg Kinnear could give subtle character performances at feature length? Yet they keep happily surprising us.

Carrell, in particular, steals nearly every scene by quietly underplaying — never his forte on The Daily Show (he performed a similar feat in the crude, likable 40-Year-Old Virgin). In contrast, Alan Arkin overdoes it and couldn’t be much louder, but he is brilliant, as always. He’s enormously irritating, just as his character is supposed to be. Toni Collette, Paul Dano, and young Abigail Breslin all have their delightful and/or touching moments.

Nonetheless, sooner or later, one has to deal with the script of this movie, and it’s a mess. The plot is clumsy and unconvincing, the attitudes are all mixed up, and the contrivances are downright annoying. It’s difficult to describe without spoilers, so I’ll settle for a couple of examples that bothered me.

A certain fuzziness takes the edge off the satire. Our seven-year-old heroine has apparently watched a lot of beauty pageants on TV and she was even runner-up in one. We are primed to share in her excitement at being invited to the title pageant.

When finally arriving at the contest with her family, she seems as appalled as everyone else by the fakery, snobbery, and silliness involved, which we are now invited to ridicule. The pageants on TV, and the one she had already been in, must have been just as dumb. Of course it’s funny — is there an easier target than a beauty pageant, especially with kids as contestants accompanied by their ghastly parents? But didn’t the point get lost along the way, or was there really a point?

There are eye-rolling coincidences, too. Carrell’s gay Proust scholar just happens to end up at the same gas station at the same moment as the other two members of the love triangle that drove him to attempt suicide hundreds of miles away. The revelation of another character’s crucial color-blindness could be used as a counterexample in writing class: How Not To Handle a Big Plot Point.

The film is full of this sort of silly, shallow stuff. Screenwriter Michael Arndt has provided some funny and touching situations and he has some sort of interesting idea in mind about people being able to move happily on, despite each and every one of their dreams turning out to be unattainable, or worthless, or both. But it’s also his job to connect situations and the theme together, and this he hasn’t done.

The actors make it work most of the time, and music-video veterans Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris provide bouncy, entertaining direction. They keep all the plates spinning, and they get their laughs and their tears.

None of this is seriously objectionable, but compare it to a genuinely great movie, like Sideways, and its relative worth is a lot clearer. In Sideways, the serious character study and the cascading farce strengthened one another. It was brilliant writing. It was also edgy in a way that Little Miss Sunshine, with all its dabbling in death and despair, studiously avoids. It basically wants to be a nice little movie. For better or worse, that’s just what it is.

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  • Of course it’s shallow. That’s the point.