Saturday, June 21, 2014

Stubs – Little Miss Sunshine

Little Miss Sunshine (2006) Starring: Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin, Alan Arkin.  Directed by Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris.  Screenplay by Michael Arndt. Produced by Marc Turtletaub, David T. Friendly, Peter Saraf, Albert Berger, and Ron Yerxa. Run Time: 101 minutes. U.S.  Color,, Comedy, Drama

Take a bankrupt inspirational speaker, a gay suicidal Proust expert, a drug using foul mouthed grandfather, a silent teenager who claims to hate everyone, a slightly delusional pre-adolescent girl and a too busy to notice mother and mix them together and you have the Hoover family of Albuquerque, New Mexico and a surprisingly funny movie. Little Miss Sunshine is a road picture pretty unlike any road picture you’ve probably ever seen.

Sheryl Hoover (Toni Collette) is busy with work, but she has time to take in her suicidal brother, Frank Ginsberg (Steve Carell). The premiere Proust scholar in America, Frank is distraught after his love for a male graduate student, Josh (Justin Shilton), is unrequited and Josh ends up with Larry Sugarman (Gordon Thomson), who happens to be America’s number two Proust scholar. (Author Marcel Proust is described by Frank as having “Spent 20 years writing a book almost no one reads. But he's also probably the greatest writer since Shakespeare.”) This misadventure in love has left Frank without a job, a home or much hope. But what pushes him over the edge is when Sugarman is awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant.

Meanwhile, Sheryl’s husband, Richard (Greg Kinnear), preaches his nine steps of success to mostly empty rooms of uninspired people. A financial failure, Richard keeps preaching the importance of being a winner, even to the annoyance of his own family. Richard is obsessed through most of the film with getting a book published, a key in the marketing of any self-help guru, and is trying to get a hold of his agent, Stan Grossman (Bryan Cranston), hoping for the good word that never comes.

Frank, who can’t be left alone, is brought home to share a room with Dwayne (Paul Dano), a depressed teenager who has taken a vow of silence nine months previous. He wants to be an Air Force pilot and somehow thinks this silent treatment is going to get him there. A reader of Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher, Dwayne hates everyone, family included, and communicates through writing words and phrases down on a note pad.

Already in the mix is Richard’s father, Edwin (Alan Arkin), who got kicked out of his retirement village for snorting heroin. Edwin also snorts coke. His excuse is that he’s old and why shouldn’t he? Foul-mouthed, argumentative and dissatisfied, Edwin has taken a real shine to his grand-daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin), with whom he is working on a dance routine, should she ever need one for a beauty pageant.

Dinner at the Hoover house with (from left to right) Richard (Greg Kinnear), Olive (Abigail Breslin),
Edwin (Alan Arkin), Frank (Steve Carell), Dwayne (Paul Dano) and Sheryl (Toni Collette).

Cute, but not pretty, Olive is a chubby girl who wears glasses and her hair long and straight. Again, cute for a grade-schooler, but she has her eyes on being in beauty pageants. You might say she’s obsessed with the idea. She actually entered a local pageant for “Little Miss Sunshine” for which she finished, what I would think would be, a surprising second. As we all know from Miss America, being the first runner up is very important because if the winner can’t fulfill her duties …, well in the case of the local contest, the winner has been disqualified so now with less than forty-eight hours’ notice, Olive has to be in Redondo Beach, California for the national finals.

Olive upon hearing the news that she's in the finals of the Little Miss Sunshine pageant.

While money is a big issue, it is not the only one. Granddad wants to go, since he’s been coaching Olive through her routine, Sheryl doesn’t think fifteen year-old Dwayne should be left in charge of Frank, so they can’t stay behind. Dwayne agrees to go once mom promises she’ll give her permission for flight school. The solution is a road trip in a Volkswagen T2 Microbus. And comedy ensues.

With money tight and logistics impossible, the entire Hoover family crowds into a VW T2 Microbus.

That is not to say everything that happens is fun. Granddad spouts out advice to Dwayne, to have sex with as many girls as he can, like a broken sprinkler, not caring who might overhear, Olive. One would think there have been previous opportunities for this kind of advice, but it’s the inappropriateness of his timing that is funny.

When Sheryl offers to learn to drive a stick, in order to help with the driving, she manages to break the clutch. With an older van, in the middle of nowhere on a weekend, the prospects don’t look good for the Hoover family. But the mechanic (Julio Oscar Mechoso) informs them that they don’t need the clutch to shift from 3rd to 4th only from 1st to 2nd. If they can get the car up to speed, they can still drive the car. So every time they stop, the entire family has to push to get the car started and hustle to get in, since Richard can’t slow the van down. It turns out to be quite funny. And more things will go wrong, as later the van’s horn decides to honk on its own.

With the clutch shot, the family has to push start the van and then run to get
inside. This actually gets funnier as the movie goes on.

Richard, who preaches winning to his family, berates Olive when she orders her breakfast waffle a la mode, French, we learn, for "in the style." He tells her that beauty contestants don’t eat ice cream, a claim that will be refuted later by none other than Miss California. But the rest of the family convinces Olive that it’s okay to eat ice cream, which is delivered well ahead of the waffle and in a separate dish.

Despite her father's warnings, Olive eats her ice cream for breakfast.

When they do stop for gas, Olive goes off by herself to practice her routine. Edwin gives Frank money and asks him to buy him porn and to get himself something, too. While he’s in the gas station, Frank runs into Josh, who is with Sugarman. (This seems as unlikely as Albuquerque being the hot bed of Proust scholarship.) Once they get the van going and are back on the road, they realize they’ve left Olive behind, so they have to make their way back and literally scoop her up as they drive by.

There is no stopping the van once it gets started, so Olive has to run to get on board.

And what is comedy without tragedy. When they stop for the night in Arizona, Edwin ODs on heroin and is declared dead at a local hospital. Now this presents a real challenge for the Hoovers. They cannot fill out all the paperwork necessary to remove the body and transport it across state lines and still make the beauty pageant. Nor can they simply leave the body and pick it up on the return. So when given lemons, they go around the law and sneak the body out the window and into the van. Surprisingly, no one seems to report this to the authorities and the Hoovers make it into California with no problem.

Of course, that’s when the horn breaks and they are pulled over by a CHiPs officer, State Trooper McCleary (Dean Norris). Richard gives him probable cause to look in the trunk, but instead of finding Edwin’s dead body, he finds the porn magazines, which he really seems to appreciate, until they get to the one Frank purchased. But the policeman lets them go on their way. Next stop, Newport Beach.

But there are still problems to follow. One of which is that during a simple passing time in the car activity, it is discovered that Dwayne is color blind. (You might think this would have come up before now). Frank informs him that you can’t be color blind and be a pilot, which causes Dwayne to erupt. When they pull the van over, Dwayne bolts and breaks his silence with a curse word laden rant about how unfair this is and how much he hates his family. He begs them to leave him on the side of the road, but Olive goes down and puts her arm around him and Dwayne quickly comes around.

Dwayne learns that he can't be an Air Force pilot, because he is color blind.

The Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant is really creepy. The girls are too made up for their age and look more grotesque than beautiful. Not that Olive isn’t cute, but she is not in the same league (good or bad) with these hideous girls. The Hoovers barely get there in time and with a car you can’t slow down, Richard does some very tricky and dangerous and illegal maneuvers to get them there. They are late by a few minutes and Pageant Official Jenkins (Beth Grant) refuses to let them register, despite their pleas and Richard literally getting down on his knees to beg. However, her disgruntled assistant, Kirby (Wallace Langham), is willing to let five minutes not be that big of a deal.

One of these things is not like the others. Olive looks natural next to the other contestants.

As the contest goes on, Dwayne, Frank and Richard come to the realization that Olive doesn’t belong here, but Sheryl is insistent that it’s up to Olive and she wants to perform. While the rest of the talent has been marginal at best, no one is really ready for Olive’s dancing or her musical choice, Rick James’ Super Freak, which is presented in an extended remix. While she is really not graceful, it is the over-the-top suggestiveness, no doubt choreographed by Edwin, which alarms Jenkins. But Richard gets on stage to prevent the MC (Matt Winston) from trying to usher her off. In fact, the whole family gets on stage with her in a sudden show of unity.

The family gets on stage to support Olive's dancing.

The Hoovers are nearly arrested, but are let off with the promise never to enter Olive in a beauty contest in the state of California again. This is something the entire family can agree on. After run starting their car and nearly rear ending Jenkins (who inexplicably would leave her pageant before the Hoovers do), the family is back on the road, their horn blaring as the film ends.

It's been a long two days. The Hoovers are nearly arrested, but allowed to leave.

This is a very strong ensemble cast and they have to be to carry the film. Abigail Breslin was only about ten when she played in this movie, but she had been acting in films since she was five, first appearing in Signs (2002). She plays a very natural little girl in the film with bigger ambitions, which might not have been too much of a stretch for her. She continues to act, most notably she did some voice work in Rango (2011) as Priscilla and she was Valentine Wiggin in Ender’s Game (2013).

Paul Dano had a tough role, expressing himself without speaking for more than half of the movie. While he wrote down his dialogue, he was still able to convey what his character was feeling through facial expressions. Dano received individual attention as an actor for his portrayal of Paul Sunday / Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood (2007), receiving a BAFTA nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He was also in another strong ensemble in 12 Years a Slave (2013).

Toni Collette, an Australian actress, pulls off the part of a normal American wife and mother pretty well. She has been acting in movies since Spotswood (1992), but her big break was playing Muriel Heslop in Muriel’s Wedding (1994). She’s been nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for the role of Lynn Sear in The Sixth Sense (1999). She also appeared as Tara Gregson in the Showtime series The United States of Tara, created by Diablo Cody and ran for 36 episodes from 2009 to 2011.

Greg Kinnear, who got his start on TV, some might remember he used to host E’s Talk Soup from 1991 to 1995, moved to the big screen in Blankman (1994) playing, of all things, a Talk Show Host. He received a lot of attention for this performance as Simon Bishop in As Good As it Gets (1997). Other memorable roles include playing Bob Crane in Auto Focus (2002) and voicing Phineas T. Ratchet in Robots (2005).

While the entire cast is good, I think Alan Arkin and Steve Carell stand out. Arkin plays a say-whatever-I-want-to character as good as anyone. He’s been playing crotchety for quite a while now. The first example I can recall is Peevy in The Rocketeer (1991) and the latest being Lester Siegel in Argo (2012).

Carell, who is hit or miss with me as an actor, really hits this performance out of the ball park, so to speak. His underplayed portrayal of a gay man and his deadpan delivery of some of the funniest lines in the movie make him the most watchable of the actors. When he gives Dwayne advice, during the pageant, it is funny, but at the same time comes across as genuine and heartfelt:

Dwayne: I wish I could just sleep until I was eighteen and skip all this crap-high school and everything-just skip it.
Frank: Do you know who Marcel Proust is?
Dwayne: He's the guy you teach.
Frank: Yeah. French writer. Total loser. Never had a real job. Unrequited love affairs. Gay. Spent 20 years writing a book almost no one reads. But he's also probably the greatest writer since Shakespeare. Anyway, he uh... he gets down to the end of his life, and he looks back and decides that all those years he suffered, Those were the best years of his life, 'cause they made him who he was. All those years he was happy? You know, total waste. Didn't learn a thing. So, if you sleep until you're 18... Ah, think of the suffering you're gonna miss. I mean high school? High school-those are your prime suffering years. You don't get better suffering than that.

Taking a break from the contest, Frank gives Dwayne some advice about life.

The film is also well written. Started as a lampoon on the Arnold Schwarzenegger quote, "If there's one thing in this world I hate, it's losers. I despise them,” the film takes a very dysfunctional family on the car trip from hell, which most of them survive. The film relies on the characters Arndt creates and how they react to the situations presented them by the story. Dysfunctional is rarely this much fun.

The film was a huge success, raking in over $100 million worldwide on a budget of about $8 million, and was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture (losing to The Departed), and for Best Supporting Actress (Breslin). The film did win for Best Supporting Actor (Arkin) and Best Original Screenplay (Michael Arndt).

While I will admit a certain resistance to watch the film, oftentimes movies that receive as much hype as this one don’t live up to expectations, I am glad we did. The film is at times laugh out loud funny and at other times poignant and sweet. Not a film for the entire family, its R rating is well earned, though I wouldn’t say this was a hard R by any stretch.

Seen with an appropriate group of adults, Little Miss Sunshine is well worth seeing. While I can’t say it will make you cry, it will make you think and it will definitely make you laugh.

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