Monday, September 18, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine

The poster image
by Ryland Walker Knight

When you watch Steve Carrell on television most often he will wow you with an exciting, flamboyant caricature. On film he reigns himself in, somehow, and has, in the past two years, delivered two nuanced and subtle portraits of wounded men who happen to have impeccable comedic timing and mannerisms.

The latest display of these talents is Uncle Frank from the debut feature of longtime music video directors, Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. We meet Frank at, in all likelihood, his lowest point: having survived a suicide attempt, Frank is released into the care of his always-distracted sister Sheryl (Toni Collette) who asks him if he wants to talk but as soon as he says "No" shunts him off to share a room with her son, Dwayne (Paul Dano), who has taken a vow of silence to become a Neitzchian superman. Carrell plays Frank as still recovering, possibly still in shock, accepting what's given him because, well, he has to, and this is family. A family going on a road trip from Albuquerque, NM to Redondo Beach, CA in a bright yellow broken down VW bus. They don't fix the bus but you sure can bet they fix each other, right?

The family is a dream cast with each member of the ensemble lending more humanity and credibility to their broadly sketched characters. This is the kind of movie where the cast picks up where the screenplay left off and if it weren't for them everything would be just a little too perfectly awry. The new directors manage the chaos and crowd control well, balancing all the personalities against one another to orchestrate the mania of a family road trip, but it's really the actors' show here.

Along with Carrell, Collette & Dano we have crusty, bitter Grandpa played, with the kind of loony anger he lacked in CATCH-22, by Alan Arkin, the other standout addition to the cast. Unfortunately, once Grandpa exits the story about halfway through there's a good ten minute lull where the audience has to adjust to his void not readily filled immediatly. Yet there are more twists and turns to come across that seem proposterous but, luckily, the cast makes them believable and charming once again. We've all seen somebody get out of a ticket by chance but the way Greg Kinnear plays with the traffic cop and the ugly situation is proof of his dedication to the film and his character.

And that's all this movie boils down to, really: some great acting of a mediocre screenplay shaped by talented directors. Should be a home run, right? I think the reason the picture has developed such a following (like Carrell's 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN from last year) is because it succeeds where most modern comedies fail: it's not simply a concept stretched over 90 minutes (WEDDING CRASHERS?), but rather an honest and heartfelt film. It just so happens it uses every device and rote plot point you would expect it to dole out. When Beth Grant shows up as the talent show proctor with no time for the family who's just been through so much but are only five minutes late I was not tickled (Oh, remember her from DONNIE DARKO?) but annoyed, yet again, at a broad caricature used as a plot device. But what saves the scene--and the rest of the third act--is the family's devotion and the laughs you can't deny. Tell me this isn't a funny picture:

broken door

02006: 101 minutes: dir. Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris: written by Michael Arndt

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