"'s just funny. Really, really funny"

Seriously Funny Road Trip Without the Beer

(082606) Uncle Frank, the nation's preeminent Proust scholar, is sporting white gauze on his wrists, a result of his recent suicide attempt. Grandpa got kicked out of Sunset Manor for snorting heroin. Daddy wants to be a motivational speaker, only he's really the kind of annoying sales-pitch guy who motivates others to roll their eyes. Teenage brother Dwayne, a Nietzsche fanatic, has taken a vow of silence. And Mom? Mom sneaks smokes and considers it a balanced meal when she opens a bag of salad to go with her Diet Sprite and chicken-in-a-bucket dinner spread.

Throw all of them into a broken-down, yellow VW bus en route from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach so that 7-year-old Olive -- big glasses, fat ponytail, sweet curve of baby fat -- can compete for the dubious title of Little Miss Sunshine, and it feels like a recipe for disaster. Which it is. Hilariously so.

"Little Miss Sunshine" does not include any of the graduating comedy class from "Old School" -- no Will Ferrell, no Vince Vaughn, no Wilson brother -- and it doesn't depend on jokes involving bodily functions, streaking or beer bongs. But it's laugh-out-loud funny, soda-out-the-nose funny, heartbreaking, hilarious and, basically, a total scream. By the time this family road trip rolls to a stop at a hotel next to a California interstate -- where a choreographed dance number elevates truly funny to even funnier -- the film salvages a summer movie season rich with Pirates and Prada, but sadly short of belly-busting laughs.

Written by Michael Arndt and directed by the husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (whose résumés primarily feature music videos), "Little Miss Sunshine" triumphs with acting performances that are, across the board, poignant, smart and real. As Richard, Greg Kinnear is that familiar insufferable salesman, spouting positive-think-speak 24/7 -- "Sarcasm is the refuge of losers," for example -- while secretly driving his little girl (played by Abigail Breslin) to tears because "Daddy hates losers" and she's not so sure the Little Miss Sunshine pageant crown is a sure thing. Grandpa (Alan Arkin) is kinky and crass and nihilistic (and the one who shows the most care for Olive, for better and worse).

The always wonderful Toni Collette is delightful as Sheryl, the mom trying to hold together a fractured and near-bankrupt family, but the fact that her strong performance ends up feeling like a backdrop only speaks to how powerful her cast mates perform. The scene-stealer here is Steve Carell, whose turn as the awkward, tortured Uncle Frank is a revelation in its subdued lines and stilted body language -- just watching him run brings on fits of laughter. The love of his life -- a male grad student -- has just run off with the second -most preeminent Proust scholar in the nation, and Frank's been relegated to sharing a room with his nephew, Dwayne, who welcomes him by writing, "Please don't kill yourself tonight" in his ubiquitous notebook.

And Breslin, in her about-to-be-outgrown pink shorts, bare legs and red-leather cowboy boots -- that look that moms everywhere cringe at but can't actually ban -- captures a sense of innocent wonder traveling in a world of grown-up despair. There's a reason she wears earphones for much of the film; but she's also the linchpin that holds the whole crazy Hoover clan together. They got in the bus in the first place to make her dream happen; what they'll do to keep it going -- despite their own misery -- is what gives the film its heart.

The Hoover family lives in a '70s-style house in Albuquerque, all wood-paneled rooms and wall-to-wall carpeting. Richard is trying to sell a nine-step plan to success...unsuccessfully. Sheryl is trying to take care of her grieving brother ("I'm glad you're here," she tells him, after retrieving him from the hospital, post-suicide attempt. "That makes one of us," he deadpans) and keep the family finances afloat. Grandpa uses the adage "I'm old!" to justify his predilections for heroin, porn and sexually explicit conversation.

On their two-day trip to California, all face individual crises; meanwhile, there is the pervading sense that heartbreak and embarrassment loom ahead for Olive, who looks not a whit like your average overly made up, rhinestone-wearing child beauty queen, but seems pretty much oblivious to that fact.

Ostensibly a road movie, the film gets a big boost because the family VW van is practically a seventh character: A gag that has everyone pushing the car to get it started, then jumping into the side door at a frantic run, works over and over again, surprisingly, right up to the final scene. And when the Hoovers exit the interstate and can see the pageant hotel from the highway -- but no possible way of actually getting there -- it's hilariously familiar to anyone whose family vacations involved road trips to Famous American Landmarks with crumpled, outdated maps to guide them.

What happens when the family actually makes it to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant -- which in its stereotypical rendering is both familiar and appalling -- is sad, sweet, enlightening...a whole host of things, really. But mostly it's just funny. Really, really funny. And absolutely worth 800 miles of riding along in a VW bus.

Directed by:    Valerie Faris, Jonathan Dayton
Written by:    Michael Arndt
Starring:    Steve Carell, Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette
Released:    08/18/06 (United States)
Length:    101 minutes
Rating:    Rated R for for language, some sex and drug

LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE © 2006 Fox Searchlight Films.
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2006 Alternate Reality, Inc.

(aka "Old Reviews")