Show me a first time feature filmmaker, and I'll show you someone with a slightly messy roadtrip movie to get out of his/her system. But if you're a festival programmer, I suggest you ask yourself this question: how many self-consciously "quirky" Murphy's Law comedies set primarily on a highway does a single schedule actually need? Sundance 2006 has two that I've seen – Wristcutters and Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' Little Miss Sunshine – and possibly others that have slipped under my radar. Wristcutters, as I wrote in my review, at least takes the stuff of indie cliche and pumps it through a new filter; Little Miss Sunshine is not nearly as organized as that. The problem with this film – which is so far the big cash cow of the festival, having sold last weekend to Fox Searchlight for a reported eight figures – is not just that it's got very little new to bring to the party, although there's that, too; more importantly, Sunshine is dragged down by its apparent confusion over what kind of film it wants to be. Is this a poignant, PT Anderson-esque ensemble film, as the opening montage might suggest? Is it, its inexplicably retro sense of design might have us believe, a Wes Andersonian, irony-heavy drama about a family's clashing idiosyncrasies? Or is it a simple, slapstick crowdpleaser, as indicated by the apparent aims behind both its dismally unfunny second third, and facile but admittedly tear-inducingly funny climax? I'll tell you this: by the time the family in question is working together to transport a corpse out of a hospital, it seemed pretty clear to me that Little Miss Sunshine has The Happy, Texas Curse written all over it.
You remember Happy, Texas, don't you? It was the film that inspired Sundance 1999's most heated bidding war, eventually going to Miramax for a rumored (and then considered gigantic) $10 million. Harvey Weinstein then watched the unremarkable comedy tank at the box office whilst a couple of months later, little film Artisan picked up at that same festival went on to gross about 150 times its purchase price. There are those who believe that Happy's anticlimactic performance caused a wave of caution amongst acquisition execs at future Sundances; after last year's Hustle and Flow (picked up by Paramount Classics as part of a $12 million, three picture deal) failed to produce a summer blockbuster, many of them were forced to change their tunes.
It's impossible to say for sure, at this point, whether or not Little Miss Sunshine will follow in these illustrious footsteps, but signs do not look good. I can only imagine that the studios interested in the film were really interested in Steve Carell – or, at the very least, drunk on the idea of a 40 Year Old Virgin repeat. Whilst I'd be the last to argue against the intoxicating properties of a $200 million dollar gross on an R rated comedy, Sunshine is hardly the 41 Year Old Neurotic Married Guy. Carell (following the teachings of the Robin Williams School of Comedians Who Want Oscars, he's wearing a beard for the occasion) plays Frank, a gay academic who goes to his sister Sheryl's (Toni Colette) house to recover from a suicide attempt. There he encounters Sheryl's teenage son, Dwayne (Paul Dano), who has taken a vow of silence; her asshole Dr. Phil-wannabe husband (Greg Kinnear) and his junkie dad (Alan Arkin, doing his best imitation of Ben Gazzara); and her daughter Olive, a six-year-old shaped like a beach ball who dreams of winning beauty pageants.
Arkin's scene-stealing secondary performance aside, Carell is the best part of the film, and watching the thing, I desperately wished Dayton and Faris had rewritten the script to focus on his story arc. As it is, the narrative splinters off into too many directions, and once Arkin's services are no longer needed, it loses a great deal of momentum. A cheap Sisyphean metaphor literally drives the thing: at first played for laughs, it's recycled to the point of nausea. The third act is full of bumbling sort-of action scenes that I think we're supposed to be laughing through; I mostly yawned. Most troubling, Faris and Dayton are best known for their work in music videos – so why is the film's look (though it's apparently set in the present day, it appears to have been modeled after a beachfront postcard circa 1978) so uninspired?
It would be wrong to begrudge Sunshine its few, laugh-out-loud funny scenes; Olive's pageant talent is hilarious and truly surprising; Arkin gives a few speeches that qualify as laugh riots; and Carell shows that he deserves a better in which he can show off his ability to grow a beard. But overall, Little Miss Sunshine falls flatter than ... well, than Happy Texas' second week grosses. I'd bet a theoretical eight figures that Fox Searchlight won't be able to market this thing into a hit.
Others on Little Miss Sunshine: Variety's David Rooney loves the film, which he calls "a quietly antic dysfunctional family road trip comedy...distinguished by a flawless cast, a gentle spirit of rebellion and a smart script..."; also impressed is Duane Byrge of The Hollywood Reporter, who feels that it's "one of those movies that veteran moviegoers complain they don't make anymore."