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20th Century Fox presents
"Everybody just pretend to be normal, okay?"
DVD ReviewAt some point or another, every moviegoer gets burned by the hype machine—a film has been so crazily pumped up as spectacular, exciting, hilarious, groundbreaking, whatever superlative plays best in a pull quote, that by the time you catch up with it and actually see the movie, you realize that you've been set up for disappointment. And the horses may have left the barn by now, but if you can, shut out the film-festival and award season buzz that threatens to drown out the feature, and you'll find that Little Miss Sunshine is a charming and eccentric if somewhat slight movie, a dysfunctional family road trip picture with a quirky script (that may sometimes try a little too hard), and a great bunch of actors playing some deeply flawed but surprisingly empathic characters.
Greg Kinnear is the pater of this odd little clan—an aspiring Tony Robbins, Richard is sure that his Nine Steps to Success will find a publisher and launch him to infomercial superstardom (or stave off bankruptcy, anyway). Toni Collette plays his wife, Sheryl, who's just barely holding it together—her adolescent son Duane has taken a vow of silence until he can enroll in the Air Force Academy, and her young daughter, Olive, has beauty queen aspirations. Not helping matters much is Richard's father, played hilariously by Alan Arkin, who is Olive's choreographer between cocaine hits; and in the most dire straits of all is Frank, Sheryl's brother, a Proust scholar who's in the academic gutter, broken hearted because his boyfriend has jilted him, and who has just tried an unsuccessful though deeply painful suicide attempt.
The answering machine holds a glimmer of hope for Olive's dreams of glory: she has earned a place in tomorrow's Little Miss Sunshine pageant, but she'll have to get from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach in a heartbeat, and economic circumstances being what they are, the cost of airplane tickets is just flat-out prohibitive. So we're off on a family road trip, the sextet piled into a crappy old VW van with a broken clutch, the enabler of much of the physical comedy of the piece. What's especially endearing about the movie is that the characters are portrayed with such multidimensionality, and with the kind of depth from which most Hollywood pictures recoil. (If you need a great big steaming plate of likability, don't watch this one.) In a more conventional, more boring story, Richard would be the typical autocrat, Sheryl the stage mom, Grandpa a kindly old coot, and so on. But all of them have aspects that are tremendously winning and deeply loathsome—you'll pass your judgments, but they are all sort of decent in their own way, and they're all trying really, really hard, though their severe limitations are evident, to themselves most of all.
It's also refreshing to see characters from a lower socio-economic stratum portrayed with some sophistication—they're not condescended to nor sitcommed up, and their home doesn't have the improbable look of a Pottery Barn catalog on a Sam's Club budget, the kind of thing you see frequently in Hollywood product that panders to the working class. And it feels like the script has brought out the best in the cast—Steve Carell is fantastically deadpan as Frank, for instance, and Abigail Breslin deserves special mention as little Olive. It's her dream that is the motor of the story, but she is, really, just a kid—and the climactic sequence, with her insanely inappropriate talent act performed in a cut-rate hotel conference room for a crowd full of JonBenet wannabes and their enablers, is a stitch. And it's here that the movie kind of settles back into itself—you feel sometimes on the road that the filmmakers are pushing it, or that they've been holding back, or something, and here, like their characters, they're finally able to let themselves cut loose. And the movie more or less ends there, knowing that life has frayed ends, and things aren't tied up in neat little bows, even though it's time for the credits to roll.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: The widescreen is the way you'll want to go, certainly—the film was made on a relatively modest budget, but so much of it is about the call of the open road, so seeing it panned and scanned does the movie a serious disservice. Colors can be a little blotchy, but overall it's a pretty fair transfer.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: A good atmospheric audio track, with just occasional bits of popping. The surround speakers are used with nuance and care on the 5.1 track.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish, French with remote access
4 Other Trailer(s) featuring Thank You For Smoking, Sideways, Garden State, The Illusionist
4 Alternate Endings
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (track one); Dayton, Faris and screenwriter Michael Arndt (track two)
In some ways, briefer but far more illuminating are the four alternate endings, which also come with optional commentary from the directors. The different choices don't vary wildly or force you to rethink your take on the story; but it's a great demonstration of the filmmakers trying to find just the right tone for the piece, one that's neither too somber nor too jokey. Also here is a music video for Devotchka's Till the End of Time, a song on the movie's soundtrack; and a brief ad for the soundtrack CD, featuring, of course, Mr. Rick James.
Extras Grade: B-
Final CommentsFrequently very funny with an eccentricity that sometimes may feel a bit too cultivated. Forget about the tidal wave of buzz that surrounds the movie, and shut out what's sure to be the inevitable if undeserved backlash, and on its own terms, Little Miss Sunshine and its charming peculiarities are likely to win you over.
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