Oh, the Oscars

The five: Babel, The Departed, The Queen, Dream– (oh wait), Letters from Iwo Jima, and Little Miss Sunshine. QB’s favorite movies of 2006 will appear on 31 January, and let’s just say things will look a little differently. As in, totally different. As in, not one of the above five gets in. The oddball, dark horse entry is Little Miss Sunshine, the Little Engine that Could. Or, I wish it could. I wanted to love it, because I liked everything in its periphery–strong cast, indie production, out-of-left-field hit that gained genuine popularity with audiences (instead of, as with Borat, having that popularity market-tested to death and crammed down our throats), low-budget.

Alas. James Wolcott nails its problems:

It isn’t a terrible fraud of a movie (unlike some previous nominees and winners), but its modest assets have been overblown and oversold, its rickety contrivances mistaken for the raw bones of life. It’s a comedy riddled with cute, unconvincing gimmicks–the van that always needs pushing, the unexpected death that’s become a black-comedy staple (e.g., Rip Torn getting flattened in Dodgeball), the vow of silence that we wait to be broken–and signpost characterization. The entire family seems to have been peeled off a billboard advertising an All-American Dysfunctional Family. As the depresso, Steve Carell’s deadpan, crumbling stoicism is quite affecting, but he never seems the slightest bit bookish or professorial, much less a Proust scholar. His being the number one Proust scholar seems intended as a sort of non-joke joke, like David Lynch’s character in Twin Peaks being named Harry S. Truman, but it doesn’t “play,” and the movie’s finale number–the daughter clumsily shaking her pre-pubescent booty to “Superfreak,” provoking a tizzy–is a blundering letdown, badly staged, shrilly acted, and stupidly implausible. Abigail Breslin’s Olive has been obsessing on beauty pageants her entire young life (our first shot of her has her riveted in front of the TV, replaying the ecstastic response of a new Miss America being named), and has already competed in a JonBenet-like contest–she’d know that this 70’s retro burlesque wouldn’t be what the judges were looking for.

Go read it.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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4 Responses to Oh, the Oscars

  1. Elizabeth says:

    I take issue with one word that Wolcott uses: “gimmick.” That’s a word a lot of smartypants people are using now, and to quote Indigo Montoya, “I do not think it means what you think it means.” In Little Miss Sunshine, the broken van is a fun joke that is repeated. Structurally, it gives us a benchmark: every time we see them pushing the van, we reevaluate. Who’s missing this time? What’s the mood? How is the family different this time? I think when people make the “gimmick” accusation, they’re perhaps suggesting that the joke has no depth behind it, that it’s unsupported, that it’s there for its own sake. However, the word “gimmick” is also a wet-blanket word. “Your joke was silly. Shame on you.” I’m writing this from Austin, the land of Funny/Silly/Often Meaningless, and I’ve got to tell you, it’s a lot of FUN being all three of those things. Meaning is good! Yes, let’s have it. But perhaps the reason why Oscar movies aren’t top sellers and that the theater is dying is because we don’t want “art” to deliver silly, pointless fun. No, whatever you do, don’t let “art” do that! Because then it might do more than challenge us; it might just entertain us, too.

  2. Ernesto says:

    I too feel compelled to rise to LMS’s defense. It’s the only one of the Best Picture nominees I have seen but it also made me laugh harder than any movie I’ve seen in a long, long time. And it is precisely the scene Wolcott maligns that did it.
    I think Wolcott is wrong that her obsession with beauty paegants means she would know that her Superfreak routine is not appropriate. She idolizes her grandfather and he says it’s a great number. Why wouldn’t that be meaningful to her? How old is she? Come on.
    Throughout the movie the tension builds and builds. Its effectiveness is largely due to Kinnear’s outstanding performance. The stakes are so high for him and you can see in every scene the gambler’s desperation on his face and in this body language. By the time we get to the talent portion of Olive’s competition, we are taken so aback by what we are seeing, how different it is from the tribute we are expecting that as an audience we are stunned. The reception she gets only adds to the tension, which by now is back-breaking.
    We’ve had no release, no resolution the entire movie. Kinnear’s character’s stress to achieve has already been fused with hers and maybe if I saw the movie again, I would be able to say the same for the other characters. As the family comes onto the stage with Olive you feel all the tension you were holding in come loose at once. For me, that translated to the hardest laughing fit I’ve had at the movies in ages.

  3. Walter says:

    Kinnear is outstanding; he’s easily the best part of the movie, though Carrell & Collette are fabulous, too. But Kinnear’s managing to do the best he can with a one-note character. It’s like each character quirk—the boy won’t speak, the mom’s continually frazzled, the dad’s Mr. Peppy, the girl’s adorable, Carrell’s depressed, grandpa’s secretly a dirty ol’ man—but that’s all they get. If Kinnear and Carrell in particular develop into rounded, complex characters (and I’m not totally convinced that they do), it’s not because of the scripts or anything that the filmmaking does—it’s solely on them.
    Now, I’m fine with one-note characters… in a farce or a satire. Those genres are designed for flat, as opposed to round, characters. (No one should ever seriously criticize a Marx Brothers comedy or a W.C. Fields movie because the characters aren’t complex enough.) My problem—and, I think, Wolcott’s, to—is that LMS isn’t striving to be a farce. It wants us to think that it’s a touching, searing examination of the modern American family and the stresses underneath its shiny surface. That’s why the beauty pageant scenes are so eerie and unsettling—these girls all look like shiny plastic dolls, replicating an adult sexuality that they have no actual experience with. LMS juxtaposes the creepy entry process—where Olive almost gets thrown out because they’re late—with the stage antics. That part’s perfect. If they’d just left it there, I’d be convinced. But I’m with Wolcott. Whether the girl idolizes sick ol’ Grandpa or not, she should’ve been through enough of these contests to know what to expect, and what they were looking for. She’s the alternate for her region, after all; we’re supposed to be convinced that she’s good enough to be a finalist. But not with that routine. And that’s why the final dance sequence is such a fraud to me. The movie doesn’t convince me that she’d—or the rest of the family, except for Grandpa (who may have done this all for sick laughs)—be so naive.
    Elizabeth, you mention the whole “Funny/Silly/Often Meaningless” thing, which is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t apply to my problem with LMS. I don’t think the movie is entertaining enough. The main trope—every character has one cute quirk that hides a dark secret—is so played out and uninspired (must all indie comedies feature quirkily dysfunctional families?) that it irritates. I wasn’t entertained because I could see it all coming, and it wasn’t funny to make me forget that. I knew Silent Kid would eventually yell out in a rage. I knew Grandpa would die. I knew Mr. Peppy would break down at some point. I knew all these things, not because that’s how real people behave or because I’m a genius (I’m not). I knew it all because that’s what families do in indie comedies,. For a genre that prides itself on “independence,” the families in these movies sure seem to act a lot alike. Tolstoy’s famous quote is “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” With indie family comedies, the quote should be inverted: Unhappy families are all alike.
    So, I was mostly bored, just ticking off the “revelations” that would come as the film progressed. (I even remember thinking as I watched, “Foul-mouthed grandpa’s gonna be a coke addict, isn’t he?” Okay, so it was heroin…)
    About “gimmick”: I think Wolcott knows exactly what he’s saying here, but it’s not what you think he’s saying. I didn’t think the van thing (which was really funny… once) was a gimmick because it lacked depth. I thought it was a gimmick because it seemed like a artificial device designed to give us sympathy for the family’s plight without earning it the hard way through thoughtful characterization or a deepening plot. The van broke again! Look at how poor and overworked this American family is! Laugh, but sigh audibly! The gimmick didn’t arise naturally from the characters or the situations. It felt one of those things that creative writing professors love because they can say, “look, kids, here’s a structural device and here’s how it operates on the screenplay”—so perhaps it’s a useful teaching tool, but…
    And I’m fine with jokes “lacking depth,” whatever that means. I’ll lose all hipster cred here–not that I ever had much–by admitting that Talladega Nights made me laugh so hard I almost peed my pants. It seems like it’s stupid, but its jokes are hard-earned, it does a great job of lampooning southern culture while giving affection to it at the same time, and I think it genuinely has something interesting to say about the blue state/red state divide. But, unlike LMS, it doesn’t announce itself as a Serious Satire of Masculinity and American Consumer Culture–it just makes you laugh. Whatever depth is there is hidden stealthily behind “silly, pointless fun,” all of which being things I’m fond of.
    All that said, I really loved the acting. I thought it was intermittently funny, occasionally evocative, but depressingly predictable and wedded more to the conventions of a genre than to how real families operate. It’s perfectly fine but, for a Best Picture, I want something better than “fine.”

  4. troglodytis says:

    a couple of points…
    prior to the competition in the movie, olive had been in only one small local competition that she participated in when visiting her aunt. that is when she caught the beauty pageant bug. it is all very new to her. she hadn’t even been tainted with body image issues yet. so i think it is very plausible that she not know how inappropriate her talent routine is.
    as for..”I even remember thinking as I watched, “Foul-mouthed grandpa’s gonna be a coke addict, isn’t he?”” maybe that’s because the first time we see grandpa, long before he speaks, he’s snorting a white powdery substance?

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