Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine

A common tip for beginning screenwriters is to make your first script a road trip comedy. Because of the obvious, linear nature of the narrative - characters begin in one spot and must end in another by a given time - they are theoretically easier to construct. But I also think this is good advice because the road trip formula just works really well. So much of comedy is inventing disparate characters and then forcing them into confrontations. (Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple" represents 20th Century America's most elegantly simple demonstration of this concept.) And what setting could lend itself to confrontation and hostility better than a hot van in the midst of a long road trip?

Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (married commercial directors making their feature debut) perhaps take this advice too much to heart in Little Miss Sunshine. The script by Michael Arndt clings desperately to the established formula for these sorts of mainstream comedies, even when the perfunctory twists and turns set in stone epochs ago by the Comedy Gods don't really suit his story. Faris and Dayton, though they demonstrate tremendous promise in working with actors and get in some nice-looking shots of the American Southwest, fail to bring the subtle touch that guys like Hal Ashby, Todd Solondz or Wes Anderson routinely bring to this kind of dark, quirky, human comedy.

A sleeper hit this summer, Little Miss Sunshine appears poised to garner some Oscar nominations, if only because the all of the big studio's hotly-anticipated winter tentpoles have collapsed on themselves. (The K-Fed record release party was better-attended than Blood Diamond this past weekend.) Clearly, this is excessive praise for a movie that's entertaining but unoriginal. The only award I would seriously consider would be Supporting Actor for Alan Arkin, who does amazing work with a relatively small role as a horny, heroin-addicted grandfather.

Yes, I know. I complained that Little Miss Sunshine doesn't take risks and then immediately mentioned that it features a heroin-snorting grandfather. This is the central conceit of the film - it's an extremely typical, predictable road trip comedy starring America's most disturbed, dysfunctional family. All the laughs, seriously all of them, come from the goofy but likable personalities on board this lemon-yellow VW van. The story rolls on limply from one obvious set-up to the next.

Motivational speaker Richard (Greg Kinnear) plans to spend the weekend waiting for an important call from a publisher (Bryan Cranston) interested in his program, The 8 Steps. Instead, his wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) gets a different phone call - their daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) has been selected to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, being held on Sunday all the way in Redondo Beach, California.

Lacking both the funds and the resources for interstate travel, Richard and Sheryl have a hell of a time planning a spontaneous trip to the coast. They're forced to take the beat up old VW, and to pile their extended family in for fun and adventure on the open road. There's angsty teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano), who has been inspired by Friedrich Nietschze's writing to take a vow of silence. Richard's father (Arkin), the aforementioned heroin snorter, has also served as Olive's coach, so he rightfully insists on coming along. Finally, Sheryl's suicidal brother Frank (Steve Carrell), forbidden by doctor's orders to remain behind by himself, has no other option but to make the trip.

Their adventures, spanning several states in the course of one full day, go from bleak to bleaker. Along with serious discussions of the depression and unrequited love that drove Frank to attempt suicide, the family will confront death, bitter disappointment, humiliation and complete financial ruin during the course of the 700 mile journey to Los Angeles. Each individual cast member does a fairly tremendous job of making these despondant sadsacks and self-described losers compelling and sympathetic. It's a film about a motivational speaker, a pompous and sarcastic Proust scholar, a sullen angry teenager and a dirty old man that gives you no other choice but to root for its subjects as you would action heroes.

Carrell and Kinnear, brothers-in-law with extremely little in common and a relative amount of disdainful hostility towards one another, share a lot of the film's best moments, including some mouthy, sarcastic banter that reminded me of some of Carrell's better work on "The Daily Show." (Collette has a really nice moment in this scene, pretending to chide her brother for mocking her husband while she laughs right along with him. Very natural give-and-take, like you'd get with real siblings.)

And unlike almost any other film comedies of 2006, Little Miss Sunshine gets in some big laughs. They're not cheap laughs either, silly little asides or non-sequiteurs that get a chuckle, but well-crafted dialogue that speaks to the character's intelligence. This family may be a bunch of losers, but they're losers who choose their words carefully and seem to actually read on occasion.

Likewise, Arndt's script smartly reinvents some of the more familiar, even hacky, aspects of the road trip comedy. The VW van eventually develops some unique problems with the clutch and the horn that pay off repeatedly as effective running gags. Even some of the more "wacky" forced sequences, like the beauty pageant that caps the film off, works in spite of itself because the cast has earned so much good will.

In fact, most of my problems with the film boil down to two scenes.

In the first, Frank has a chance encounter at a highway rest stop that I suppose was meant to raise the stakes and present an obstacle to his future happiness. Screenwriting 101 teaches us that you can't make it too easy for your main character to overcome his internal dilemma and transform his life for the better. Frank, in reconnecting with his family and actually cracking a smile during the early stages of the car ride, is in serious danger of healing himself mentally before the end of the movie. So he must re-encounter the pain that triggered his suicide, so that the second act can have some conflict. I bring this up because there is no other reason for this scene to exist than screenwriting formula, and it's also highly improbable. That's a fatal combination - pointless and unlikely.

The second scene to which I object similarly occurs only to advance the predictable machinations of the plot. Dwayne derails the entire trip at the zero hour when he discovers that he is...wait for it...colorblind, and thus unable to fulfill his dream of becoming a test pilot. This development could not feel less authentic to the story. It intrudes out of nowhere merely to introduce the notion that the family might be late in arriving to the pageant.

I'm not saying Arndt shouldn't include these scenes. The road trip formula works for a reason, and I suppose there's no reason to tinker with it unnecessarily. But the best screenwriters learn how to cover their tracks, to insert these kinds of developments artfully, carefully, so that audiences can't tell what's happening until it happens. Little Miss Sunshine hews to the outline so carefully, Faris and Dayton mights as well have included title cards announcing the individual Acts and Scenes. "And now, Scene 14, which is a smashing scene with some lovely acting in which Richard discovers a vital clue."

As it stands, I could see recommending Little Miss Sunshine as a diverting comedy with a terrific, in-your-face performance from Alan Arkin. But a serious consideration as the year's Best Film? Not by a country mile.


Lons' Mom said...

Found out this is Delta's feature on westbound flights so I thought I'd catch it then. Seems perfect to help pass the time. I'll keep your comments in mind.

Jonathan said...

I liked the film more than you did, though I completely agree with your assessment of that "chance encounter" at the rest stop. It seemed very unnatural and took me out of the film for a few moments. Raising the stakes is one thing, but I felt that scene could have been eliminated completely and nobody would have complained too much that Carrell was getting over his troubles too easily.
By the way, for all you out there in Intarnet-land, our mom looks just like that.

Lons' Mom said...

Obviously, it is honesty, not sarcasm, that runs in our family! Oh, that and good looks.

Anonymous said...

Everything Jonathan said (except the part about your mom) goes double for me. Seriously, I read this and thought "I really need to comment," and then found my comment already there under the name "Jonathan".

Thanks a lot, jerk.