Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Little Miss Sunshine (Dayton/Faris, 2006)

Little Miss Sunshine is yet another in a long line of film comedies in which the central characters walk a thin line between being lovable misfits and being complete and utter horse’s asses. Imagine if you will National Lampoon’s Vacation except half as funny and twice as schmaltzy. Indeed, Little Miss Sunshine borrows liberally from Vacation, from the pater familias with an artificially sunny disposition to the goofy family vehicle that miraculously holds itself together to an unusual encounter with a highway patrolman to another plot development that I will refrain from revealing here.

Unfortunately, Little Miss Sunshine wants to have it both ways. It wants to be both cold, wicked farce and a touching statement on how a dysfunctional family can come together. It offers us both cruel gags disrespectful of human life and sincere talks on the pier about the nature and purpose of human suffering. It asks us to respect a young girl’s dream and then openly mocks that which she has aspired to be. And when did daring to walk out of step with the mainstream become equated with making a fool and a nuisance of yourself in a public forum?

Having audacity can be an admirable quality; but, it would be nice if that audacity was applied to something more worthwhile than parading your idiocy at a children’s beauty queen pageant. When Chevy Chase stormed Wally World at gunpoint, you could see the mad joy in his eyes as he fulfilled his absurd quest. The characters in Little Miss Sunshine can attain victory only by surrounding themselves with human beings more out of touch with reality than themselves. But no amount of manipulation with bureaucratic hospital employees or icy pageant organizers is going to make a surly Nietzsche-reading teenager who refuses to speak endearing. We don’t want him to find a way to connect with his family. We want him to be beaten with large sticks. Likewise, the revelation of what Grandpa has been teaching our young heroine in his private lessons is not so much humorous as it is sickening.

Taken strictly for cheap laughs, the film is moderately successful with Steve Carell mining some humor out of his character’s deep depression and Alan Arkin dishing out obscenity without flinching. However, the film accomplishes the remarkable task of turning one of today’s great actresses, Toni Collette, into a non-entity. As the sensible mom, Collette is tasked with holding this rickety ship together and playing an actual human being while her cast mates are allowed to indulge their particular quirks. Most importantly though, Little Miss Sunshine fails as a family bonding picture largely because it does not know whether or not it wants to be sincere. In the end, we are not convinced by the power of familial bonds to overcome obstacles. We are convinced that this group should be broken up and kept as far away from each other as possible.



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