Year Released: 2006
Directed by: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Starring: Alan Arkin, Abigail Breslin, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Paul Dano, Greg Kinnear
(R, 101 min.)
"We are healed of suffering only by experiencing it to the full." Marcel Proust
I’m sorry I can’t join the gushing parade of critics who mistake cheap brass for gold in this rather vulgar dysfunctional family road trip. In spite a few genuine moments, and a fine cast that does its darnedest to imbue some depth into the cardboard characters, what we really have is a contrived freak show whose dark comedy seems both artificial and inauthentic.
The grist of the film is the Hoover family’s 700-mile journey from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach, California, where seven year old Olive (Abigail Breslin) will compete in the Little Miss Sunshine Beauty Pageant. Plane travel is out of the question for the family who subsists on take-out fried chicken and Daddy’s dreams of marketing his nine-step motivational program, so they opt for the old VW van.
Toni Collette is fine as Sheryl Hoover, the ever-patient earth mother, as is slightly plump and bespectacled aspiring beauty queen Olive - plucky, honest, and endearing without ever being cutesy. And some of his detractors might say Greg Kinnear was born to play Frank Hoover, sappy, superficial, and given to spouting his annoying bromides at particularly bad moments.
Steve Carell plays Frank, a suicidal Proust scholar (not an altogether illogical coupling), in his sister Sheryl’s care until he can be trusted around sharp objects again. His quiet dignity brings dimension to a role meant to be just another quirky character in the back seat, and it is his interactions with the other family members that are the most natural and meaningful.
But spare me Grandpa Hoover, a foul mouthed curmudgeon who snorts heroine and brags about his sexual liaisons at the Paradise Nursing Home with a crudity that by contrast makes smutty locker room braggadocio sound like Shakespearean sonnets. Yes, the redoubtable Alan Arkin plays the porn loving pervert with unabashed relish, but I found little humor in his nihilistic portrait.
And speaking of nihilism, we come to Olive’s teenaged brother Dwayne - a pale-faced Goth, if I ever saw one. An ardent admirer of Nietzsche, he is nine months into a vow of silence, reduced to scribbling his “I hate everyone” invectives on a spiral pad of paper instead of shouting them to the world. What doesn’t fit is his supposed dream to become an air force pilot, one that is suddenly dashed when he discovers he is colorblind. As though the Air Force would even consider putting someone of his emotional underpinnings behind the controls of a multimillion-dollar jet, or that anyone as depressed, unconventional, and angry as Dwayne would even want to be there.
And haven’t we wrung out about as much as possible from the old dead body in trunk of the car routine, Grandpa Hoover in death as profaned as he was in the flesh. Now the running joke (no pun intended) of push starting the failing van engine, grunting shoves behind a moribund motor and then mad dashes through the van's sliding door entry as it catches at third gear, was funny, but maybe that’s because I’ve been there a few times myself.
The final scenes at the Little Miss Sunshine Contest certainly expose the freakish world of Jon Benet Ramsey prepubescent pageants, childhoods stolen behind pasted on smiles, penciled brows, and sequined lace, but only one other critic noticed that Olive’s dance routine was every bit as absurdly “adult” as the more polished overreaching antics of her rivals, hers being without any sugarcoating and thus perhaps an ironic uncovering of what their dances in essence were.
At any rate, if you are ready for a new set of comic clichés, some tasteless vulgarity, as well as some moments of enlightenment and grace, Little Miss Sunshinewill chase the clouds away, for a few hours, at least.
What is a road trip without the inevitable diner breakfast? “Anything under four dollars” is the only rule Olive must follow, so she opts for pancakes a la mode, served with chocolate ice cream no less. Proust scholar Frank uses the order as an opening to explain the original French meaning of “a la mode,” not really served with ice cream, but “in the fashion of the day.”
But Frank, ever the dutiful father, interrupts to caution his beauty pageant hopeful against the demonic lure of all those calories. Just another evil rained down upon those poor pretty little girls – a childhood without ice cream! But the otherwise crazy family shows some common sense in this scene and when they dive into the delicious bowl of slippery chocolate ice cream, Olive comes to her senses and finishes it up.
Instead of the four dollar pancakes with chocolate ice cream, somehow not too appetizing to me, I’ve opted for the more pleasing Apple Crepes a la Mode. I trust that even Marcel Proust would approve.
Apple Crepes a la Mode
- 2 tbsp butter or margarine
- 3 cups chopped apples
- 1/2 cup chopped almonds
- 1/3 cup chopped raisins
- 1/3 cups packed brown sugar
- 1/2 tbsp ground cinnamon
- 6 crepes at room temperature
- Vanilla ice cream
In a large skillet, melt butter and sauté apples, raisins and nuts for 5 minutes or until tender, stirring frequently. Stir in brown sugar and cinnamon. Sauté 2 more minutes. Remove from heat and spoon 1/6 mixture onto plated crepe.
Fold over, tuck in ends and place seam side down on the plate. Work quickly so mixture does not soak through crepe before they have been turned over. Repeat five times and garnish with a scoop of ice cream and mint leaf. A garnish of 1/2 slice of trimmed melon/cantaloupe with blueberries or strawberries help to hold the ice cream.
Recipe Source: Whalewalk Inn and Spa