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Little Miss Sunshine

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I’m writing this review of “Little Miss Sunshine” on Feb. 22, exactly four weeks after I saw the film at Sundance. Usually there isn’t such a gap between screening the movie and reviewing it, of course, but this was the 24th movie I saw at the festival, and I had to write the other 23 reviews first.

The problem is that now, almost a month later, I’m not sure why I liked “Little Miss Sunshine” as much as I did. I jotted “B+” in my notes at the end of the screening, and I remember laughing most of the way through it. But as I look at my notes, and as I recall the details, I think: This movie is derivative.

It’s one of those indie comedies about a dysfunctional family where everyone is screwed up in some particular way, and I’ve seen that movie a thousand times. There’s even a lengthy sequence that’s stolen from “National Lampoon’s Vacation” and doesn’t fit in this movie at all. I know I thought it was a B+ on Jan. 25, but time has faded my feelings and all I’m left with now are the facts, which are less complimentary.

Kids, this is why you should always write your reviews within a few days of seeing the movie.

Now then. The Hoovers are a middle-class family in Albuquerque with a host of problems. Richard (Greg Kinnear), the father, is a motivational speaker, but he seems to be failing at that, which is somewhat ironic, you’ll agree. Mom Sheryl (Toni Collette) has her act together, but her gay college professor brother Frank (Steve Carell), America’s “most highly regarded Proust scholar,” has just attempted suicide. Richard’s father (Alan Arkin) has been evicted from a retirement home because of his heroin addiction.

Richard and Sheryl’s children have not been spared, either. Seven-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin), a little pudgy and plain, wants to enter beauty pageants. Her brother Dwayne (Paul Dano) is 15, has been reading Nietzsche, and has decided to take a vow of utter silence until he gets into the Air Force Academy. He’s got nothing to say to his messed-up relatives anyway.

The movie takes off when the six Hoovers pile into the minivan and head to California, where Olive has been invited to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. Are they bound for three days of bickering, sulking and ultimately reconciling? Indeed they are. Do they encounter all manner of vehicular wackiness along the way, including a van that won’t start unless everyone’s pushing it? Heavens, yes!

This is a comedy of angst, with bitter, dark laughs that belie the film’s eventual “families gotta stick together” message. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, working from a script by Michael Arndt, find regular amusement in the family’s sullenness, often arranging shots with all six of them together, not smiling, not looking at each other, just silently being miserable.

And it’s funny. My goodness, it’s funny. That much I remember. Steve Carell continues his hot streak with a subtle turn as Frank, and Greg Kinnear plays his smarmy, clueless character for all it’s worth. The humor is more verbal than physical, and the delivery from these two particular squeezes out more hilarity than you’d have thought the lines contained.

What the film is not is a classic. It’s good for some laughs, but I don’t see it holding up to multiple viewings, particularly some of the more shenanigan-oriented sequences (including an eye-roller of a bit that involves corpse-stealing). See, here it is, only a month later, and already I’m over it. I sure liked it on Jan. 25, though.

B (1 hr., 40 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, a little sexual dialogue.)

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