Sunshine Word Search!

Find these adjectives in this review: Stupid. Ignorant. Clueless. Godawful. Pandering. Witless. Craven.

Ian Grey

When a movie stars Greg Kinnear, Alan Arkin and Toni Collette and promises to be a comedy, you're more than willing to wait for the laughs. In the case of Little Miss Sunshine, it's a film-long wait for a train that don't come. But if by perverse whim you want to witness that special juncture where stupid, ignorant and clueless conspire to create something quite near despicable, this Sundance fave can't be beat.

But even before that jaw-drooping descent into the indefensibly godawful, Little Miss Sunshine earns our disrespect. We've no argument with the idea of dysfunctional families—is there any other kind?—but Sunshine never probes motivations, while its depiction of gross dysfunction as red badge of courage can be read as either pandering or witless, although both apply.

As limned by music-video vets Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris in the smugly flattened style of subpar Todd Solondz, Sunshine's All-American Screwed-Up Family covers a gamut of one-note caricatures. Grandpa (Alan Arkin) is a cranky coot fond of snorting heroin (the utter pointlessness of senior life is assumed). Dad (Greg Kinnear) is trying to sell his sub-Tony Robbins success plan—which bold-points a theme about winners and losers that makes no sense but does provide setup for a spectacularly dubious finale. Meanwhile, the troubled teen son (Paul Dano) has taken a vow of silence based on the writings of Nietzsche. The family queer (Steve Carell) is a failed suicide and a Proust scholar.

Of course, the film has nothing to do with Nietzsche or Proust; one assumes the relentless name-checking exists to make boutique-film audiences feel more hip than the rubes resonating to less hoity-toity product placement in the blockbuster next door, but the strategy is just as craven.

Train in Vain

Since Snakes on a Plane didn't screen for critics, the only logical choice was to watch Snakes on a Train instead. (It's from the direct-to-video rip-off specialists at the Asylum—When a Killer Calls, anyone?) Alas, other than the presence of serpents on a mode of transportation, Train has little in common with what Plane appears to be. There's no Samuel L. Jackson look-alike and only one, disappointing use of the word "motherfucker." The plot concerns a woman under an ancient curse that causes her to, um, barf up snakes, which she does all over a train from Texas to California. It's not nearly as awesome as it sounds.

Although the box promises "3,000 venomous vipers," there are really more like 30, most of which could fit in the palm of your hand. Still, they're preferable to the giant CGI snake that devours the train at the end of the film.

Josh Bell

Finally, there's Mom, which is Collette as a standard maternal cipher, and her adorable/smart 7-year-old daughter, Olive, played by Abigail Breslin. Of course, since Olive really hails from Indiewood, her desire is to win the titular crown in an adolescent beauty/talent show in Redondo Beach, California, the sort of uncool Americana regularly condescended to in self-anointed "hip" indies since David Byrne's True Stories.

As the quarrelsome six drive from New Mexico to Cali, we get encounters with a corrupt, porn-loving, peckerwood state trooper and a sincere (and therefore mocked) grief counselor, plus postmortem hijinks imported from Weekend at Bernie's.

All of which leads to the gut-churningly grotesque pageant itself, where 6- and 7-year-olds in heavy slut makeup parade in revealing outfits designed to display their creepily toned bodies. Suggestive of a troupe of toddler Jenna Jamesons, the children switch their hips across the stage to stripper disco. Incredibly, this pederastic horror-show display isn't the low point.

The low point is when Olive does her act, which turns out to be a literal striptease to the accompaniment of Rick James' "Superfreak."

The everyday people in the pageant's audience look on in horror. But the filmmakers, banking on their upscale target audience's desire to feel edgy and disinclination to go home all bummed out, badger us into uplift. That is, instead of Mom and Dad and the rest being mortified, they rise to their feet, clapping madly, jubilant and finally unified in support of their child's ascension to fledgling 'ho status. The American family may be a mess for unknowable reasons, it seems, but pimping your youngest reconciles everything.

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