As Battle of the Sexes makes its initial, limited-engagement foray into theaters this weekend, I double-checked the filmography of co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, figuring that I’d been largely tuning out their work since their feature debut, Little Miss Sunshine, became a sleeper hit and a Best Picture Oscar contender. Instead, I found that there hasn’t been much to ignore. In the eleven years between their debut and their latest, the husband-and-wife team delivered only one other film, the poorly-received Ruby Sparks. Here’s why I wasn’t paying attention: I really disliked Little Miss Sunshine. This review originally appeared at my former online home.
Little Miss Sunshine is the sort of film I’d expect a powerful computer to create after compiling data gleaned from all of the comedic films that generated buzz at the Sundance Film Festival over the years. It’s a road movie with a dysfunctional family at the core. It’s got an old person who uses foul language and illegal drugs, a self-help guru who can’t get his own life in order, a teenager who’s sense of personal detachment from the world has led to a vow of silence, and on and on. The movie is so mercilessly crammed with archly colorful details that the family drinks from McDonald’s glassware and embark on their roadtrip in a dilapidated old VW bus. It feels orchestrated rather than created, carefully engineered to hit the Sundance jackpot. On that front, mission accomplished.
Despite the scorn sprinkled through the above paragraph, that’s not automatically a damning crime. One of the things we get from going to the movies is that comforting satisfaction of the familiar or the expected. Sometimes when a movie ends exactly the way we expect it to, it feels right rather than disappointingly predictable. That’s even true for independent fare, when all the pieces lining up properly can be an indication of artistic assurance. The problem with Little Miss Sunshine is that it has little to offer besides its standard-issue parts. The film aims it satiric darts at easy targets and can’t even capitalize on the comedic possibilities offered by the characters. The few times they are allowed to really spark off of each other generally correspond to the moments when the film briefly generates some energy. When Steve Carell starts giving Greg Kinnear a backseat lesson in sarcasm, cherish it. It’s like won’t soon come again.
Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (veterans of music videos and Mr. Show) assemble the film adequately, at least having the sense to give their talented cast the room to squeeze whatever they can from Michael Arndt’s limp screenplay. It’s always satisfying to see Alan Arkin and Toni Collette, no matter how much you long for them to have something beyond the simplistic to dig into. Arkin has the designated showboat role, but Collette fares better in some respects, occassionally inserting an intriguing detail in a fluttery throwaway or small reaction. Carell continues to combine crack comic timing with a genuine investment in real acting, and Kinnear is as good as he’s ever been here, hitting the right mark of irritable worry for his character with a constitent level of commitment that–Oscar nomination be damned–is fairly rare for him.
I kept waiting for these gifted performers to pull it together, to transcend their thin material. Despite scattered memorable moments–the methodology employed by Abigail Breslin’s Olive to retrieve her emotionally wounded brother is an especially nice example–the film remains defiantly tethered. The family never feels like people with long-standing relationships, and the emotional turning points are too often driven by illogical story construction, ludicrous coincidence or plain old plot holes.
Near the end, there’s a scene that involves the family members stepping up to support one of their own in an especially low moment. The result is an exuberant celebration of the character’s ill-conceived choice, the entire family united through the mutual embrace of their own off-kilter connection to the world they move through. It’s not a great moment, but it’s one of the places where the familiarity of the filmmaking choice at least feels right. With Little Miss Sunshine, those glancing connections to genuine accomplishment are the best you can get.