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We’re all in this together: Little Miss Sunshine.

The Family That Plays Together

By Laura Leon

Little Miss Sunshine

Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

Just saying the name to the ticket seller made me blush. Little Miss Sunshine. How goofy, how adorable is that? Turns out, the movie, directed by husband-and-wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, is by turns goofy and adorable, and I mean that as a supreme compliment.

Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin), a lumpy 7-year-old, is obsessed with all things beauty pageant, to the extent that she spends inordinate amounts of time rehearsing, under the tutelage of coke-snorting Grandpa (Alan Arkin), her “routine” in the basement of the family’s Albuquerque, N.M., ranch house. Her incessant optimism pays off when she is chosen to compete in the upcoming Little Miss Sunshine contest in that breeding ground of game-show contestants, Redondo Beach. Trouble is, the family finances are tight, what with dad Richard (Greg Kinnear) unable to sell his nine-step program for self-improvement, and mom Sheryl (Toni Collette) struggling mightily to keep the family afloat. The solution is the Hoovers’ old VW bus, that symbol of open-road rebellion and youthful freedom. So all the Hoovers, including teenager Dwayne (Paul Dano), who has taken a vow of silence as a way to retreat from the family, and Sheryl’s brother Frank (Steve Carell), formerly the nation’s leading Proust scholar and a failed suicide, pile in and set their sights on the Golden State.

What follows is essentially a road movie, with plenty of mishaps and lots of arguing. What keeps it from delving into National Lampoon-ville is writer Michael Arndt’s exquisite ear for the types of conversation a family has, for the issues that arise and slap one’s senses, even after years of habit.

Richard’s entire career is based on the “You can be a winner” mentality, something that he’s finding harder to hold onto, so he latches onto Olive’s dream as proof positive that they (and of course he himself) are not losers. Much of the humor, at least early on, comes from the friction that exists between this Dale Carnegie-on-crack persona and Frank, who is reminded at every turn of the handsome grad student who forsook him for the nation’s second leading Proust scholar—and who, incidentally, has taken preeminence in this field of scholarship since Frank’s nervous breakdown. That Frank has sort of given in to hitting rock bottom, perhaps as a means to recovery, drives Richard crazy.

The movie culminates at the Little Miss Sunshine contest, a ghastly affair featuring Stepford wives with shellacked hair and prepubescent tykes fitted out in such a way as to suggest a demon combination of the late JonBenet Ramsey and those screaming troll dolls of the late ’60s. It would be easy to just make fun of the proceedings; thankfully, the filmmakers avoid the obvious, in part because by this time you’ve become so invested in the Hoovers that you almost want Olive to blow away the competition, even as you wish she’d walk away from it all. Instead, they use this occasion to blow out of the water the family’s preconceptions. To a larger extent, it scores a direct hit in skewering our cultural mentality.

The concept of Little Miss Sunshine could not have worked so well had it not been for an impeccable ensemble cast. Collette et al. really come across as a family, in all senses of the word. Arkin has a blast reeling off salty advice to mute-by-choice Dwayne, including timeless nug gets like “Fuck a lot of women, not just one.” Carell, proving that comedians are often the greatest dramatic actors, is moving and solid, seamlessly developing from a fragile persona to a voice of wisdom and reason within the clan. Kinnear was made to play the middle-manager type driven to prove his worth over that of any other competitor, and Collette has the knack of making housewives and working mothers real and beatified at the same time. But it’s the younger actors, in particular, who deliver. Breslin is plucky and innocent and radiant, all at the same time, and yet somehow comes across as the family’s sobering influence. Dano, who spends most of the movie silent, does wonders with his expressions, evoking a youth who so wants to get away from his dad’s emphasis on what it takes to be a winner. Perhaps that’s because he’s already figured it out.

Fangs, but No Fangs Snakes on a Plane

Directed by David Ellis

OK, then: Snakes on a Plane. In the David Ellis-directed thriller Snakes on a Plane, Samuel Jackson stars as Neville Flynn, an FBI agent escorting a key witness from Hawaii to . . . oh, forget it.

To talk about Snakes on a Plane as if its merit is in any way filmic would be to miss the point altogether. As a movie, it sucks: In fact, it’s every bit as bad as the title would suggest. The plot, if you want to call it that, is simply ludicrous: A vicious gangland kingpin unleashes pheromone-crazed poisonous snakes on a commercial airliner carrying the aforementioned witness, who has seen him brutally murder a prosecutor. Mayhem ensues. (Even one of the characters in the movie comments on how goofy and inefficient a method of extermination this is.) The dramatic tension is zero; the character development even less; and the acting is, at best, a kind of serviceable Movie of the Week variety, laced with a mildly smug comedic self-awareness. Again: not a good movie.

But SOAP, as it is referred to by its fans, who are legion, isn’t really a movie: It’s a phenomenon. (Watching SOAP is like sitting through an hour-and-a-half-long commercial for the movie you are watching right at that moment.) Long before its release, it generated massive buzz. Fans blogged about the movie, produced tribute parody videos and songs, manufactured zany posters and T-shirts celebrating and defending the brazenly bad title, which was changed to Pacific Air Flight 121 during production, then back on the insistence of both fans and Jackson himself. (Jackson has claimed that he took the role based solely on the title.) The title has even worked its way into the slang lexicon as the equivalent of “shit happens.” Missed your bus? Snakes on a plane, man.

So fervent was the attachment to the as-yet unreleased flick that the filmmakers responded by reshooting scenes to include elements suggested by fans in online forums, including Jackson’s centerpiece quote: “Enough is enough! I’ve had it with these motherfuckin’ snakes on this motherfuckin’ plane!”

But while the history and culture surrounding SOAP are amusing, the movie’s really not—unless you’ve got a thing for depictions of CGI-snake-bitten naughty bits and pustulant venom-filled wounds. Then again, if you’re looking for a subculture to replace the Rocky Horror Picture Show clan you outgrew in high school, there are reports that a call-and-response cadre has taken to late-night showings of Snakes on a Plane.

Of course, there are also reports that two diamondhead rattlers were released by pranksters during a showing in a theater in Arizona. So, be careful. Bit on the ankle during a matinee of a soon-to-be cult classic? Snakes on a plane, man. Snakes on a motherfuckin’ plane.

—John Rodat


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