A Quick Review: Little Miss Sunshine

Quote of the Day, 4/15/07:

Sonny: “Alright, listen to me. You pull up right where she lives, right? Before you get outa the car, you lock both doors. Then, get outa the car, you walk over to her. You bring her over to the car. Dig out the key, put it in the lock and open the door for her. Then you let her get in. Then you close the door. Then you walk around the back of the car and look through the rear window. If she doesn’t reach over and lift up that button so that you can get in: dump her.”

Calogero ‘C’ Anello: “Just like that?”

Sonny: “Listen to me, kid. If she doesn’t reach over and lift up that button so that you can get in, that means she’s a selfish broad and all you’re seeing is the tip of the iceberg. You dump and you dump her fast.”

-Sonny, A Bronx Tale, 1993

Some great advice from Sonny, one of my favorite characters from one of my favorite mob movies (although, he’s not my number 1 favorite character, and the movie isn’t my number 1 favorite either). But its good advice all the same: very wise. The real interesting thing: I never would have thought this quote would have been outdated even five years ago, but it is now: most cars with manual locks are atleast ten years old now. Give it another ten years, and this quote will seem like ancient history.

(Its wierd to think that in ten years, someone born ten years ago will be twenty, and probably won’t even remember riding in a car with manul locks: he or she will totally lose the impact of this quote. I’m starting to see why old people hate young people).

Anyway….just wanted to say hi. I’m in the middle of writing something else thats taking me awhile, so I’m taking a break by writing stuff that won’t take as long (note: I didn’t think this would take as long, but two hours later, this sentence seems pretty foolish).

Okay….I saw Little Miss Sunshine two weeks ago: I wanted to write about it then, but due to an eye infection, lack of time, and other misc. happenings, I haven’t….until now. So let me see if I can wrack my brain enough to write about it.

First of all….I had heard only good things about it…..except from my parents. They didn’t hate it….but didn’t like it that much. This intrigued me….would I like it? Since my dad’s in SAG (long story), he had a free copy of the DVD. So I took bootleg, threw it in my Playstation 2, turned up the volume, turned down the lights, and got some first hand experience with the flick in question.

My Final Verdict: It was a tremendous, tremendous movie. Absolutely one of the best black comedies I have ever seen. The interesting thing is that I knew it would be a little strange, but I never actually heard anyone call it a black comedy. Honestly…I came in without knowing what to expect at all.

First, let me see if I can sum up the general themes of the movie:

The film starts out with six individuals, all drawn together in the same house for the same reason: they are forced to live with one another. They do not neccesarily like one another: they live together only because they are forced to, due to family ties. This is highlighted in the opening scene, when Frank (Steve Carell), is forced to move into the house, solely because he is considered suicidal, and his sister, who lives there, is the only relative he has.

They all sit down to eat dinner, and as they fight with one another, we see even more clearly that this family is more than dysfunctional: it doesn’t function. But there is one thing that holds everyone together: Olive (Abigail Breslin). (Note: One thing my parents didn’t like was how such a big fuss was made about Breslin, and how she was a contender for the Oscar. I agree. I don’t think she should have been a serious contender for the Oscar, although I won’t go into that here). She is the only individual who seems oblivious to all the turmoil around her, and she has one aspiration: to become Miss America.

After making the qualifying cut in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, it is decided that the entire family must go on the trip. They take a broken down van across the country, and during this trip, discover themselves as individuals and as a family.

Each character has a certain failure which they refuse to come to grips with, and through their trip, each is forced to face it.

Richard (Greg Kinnear), Olive’s father and acting head of the family, cannot come to grips with the fact that his career, essentially, is a total failure, and that everything he teaches and preaches, in essence, is also a failure. By not coming to grips with this, and lying about it, the financial situation of his family is put in jeopardy.

Frank cannot come to grips with the fact that the man he loves doesn’t love him back, and that he lost to better man, who happens to be the in same professional field as himself: because of this, he tried to commit suicide.

Dwanye (Paul Dano), who’s soul ambition is to become a pilot, takes a vow of silence in order to seperate himself from his family. He simply doesn’t know that he has a flaw which prevents him from reaching his life goal: he is color blind. Pilots can’t be color blind. Ultimately, it is a failure in itself to take such a vow without before realizing that the goal is already doomed. (In a way, this could symbolize the blindness of his idea to verbally shut himself off from all around him).

Grandpa (Alan Arkin) can’t come to grips with the fact that he is in the twighlight of his life, and insists on using heroin, instead of treasuring what he has (family).

Interestingly, Sheryl (Toni Collette) doesn’t seem to have any noticable flaws or failures, except that she can’t keep her family together.

Finally, Olive perhaps has the largest failure of all: Although we don’t find out until the end, its invevitable that she will never become Little Miss Sunshine, if only because of the racy performance her Grandpa trained her to perform.

As they travel across the Southwest in a dysfunctional van, each dysfunctional individual confront these failures, leading them to come together as one large, dysfunctional family, which, we find out, is actually functional.

Richard finally meets Stan Grossman, the agent who won’t give him a straight answer, and realizes once and for all that his dream may never come true.

Frank meets his one time lover, who he tried commit suicide over, and also sees from a distance his rival, realizing, also, that his dream will never be realized.

Dwanye realizes that he is color blind, and in so doing, breaks his vow of silence.

Grandpa comes to the ultimate realization: he dies in a drug overdose.

Through all of these realizations, the members of the family come together, depending on one another. When Grandpa died due to his self-realization, they all work together to break him out of the hospital. In essence, their dysfunctionality brings them together: a microcosm of this is the dysfunctional van. Because the van is dysfunctional, and cannot be started unless moving already, they all have to push it from behind and jump in. The first time they do this, they are openly annoyed with having to depend on one another: by the end, they thoroughly enjoy starting the van together as a family. And so, just like the van, their dysfuntional situations brought them together.

Ofcourse, the most important character is Olive: she’s the only one who is truly innocent, and who everyone can bond around. And her ultimate failure, hanging in the balance, approaches as the movie goes on, culiminating in the final scene. As it gets closer, certain characters have their doubts: Dwayne, Frank and Richard all try to stop the performance from going on, for different immediate reasons, but ultimately for the same thing: to protect Olive from seeing her flaws. Ofcourse, every character needs to come face to face with their own failures, so Olive is allowed to perform. And though she fails, she is highly victorious.

Another theme through the movie is a recurring question: who is normal. At the hospital, and later at the beauty pageant, we see behavior from “normal” people which is truly demented. The actions at the hospital are exaggerated for Hollywood’s purpose, but the point is still made: hospitals aren’t always the most caring of places, and sometimes the paper work and silly rules can be downright demented.

In these two situations, and also with the highway policeman who pulls them over, we see situations in which “normal” people come off as the wierdos, when confronted with the “dysfunctional” family. The police officer is perverted; the hospital is evil and uncaring; and the beauty pageant is perhaps the most disturbing setting of all: A place where little girls are made to be into little dolls for everyone to gawk at. At the end of this, by crashing the party and dancing on the stage, the “dysfunctional” family triumphs over the strange and twisted world that it is childrens beauty pageants. By realizing her failings, Olive realizes just how great her life is.

A couple other things about this film: all other things aside, this movie was absolutely, absolutely, absolutely: hilarious. I could not stop laughing. It was easily one of the funniest movies I have ever seen. Needs to be mentioned.

If you were really paying attention, you may have noticed a couple of interesting things. For instance, the name of the agent Richard was trying to get in touch with throughout the movie: Stan Grossman. Stan Grossman was sort of a ghost figure: Richard kept calling him, and would always get his voicemail. According to Richard, he and Stan were really close, but as viewers, we sort of got the opposite impression. Eventually, Richard met Grossman, realized his life’s plans were complete garbage, and he left.

The interesting thing is that there is a very similar Stan Grossman in another black comedy from 11 years ago: Fargo. Fargo, ofcourse, is the masterpiece written, directed, and produced by the Coen Brothers team; it is probably their best known film, and also takes place in their home state of Minnesota, which should be mentioned. It tells the demented story of a car salesman who has his wife kidnapped so that he can reap half of the ransom money that is paid to the kidnappers by his father-in-law. Ofcourse, things don’t work out for Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy). Some people are murdered, and through a series of events, one of the darkest, most disturbing storylines in film history is born. But if you recall, there is a motive besides money behind Jerry’s plan: he needs the money to finance a potential real esate project….suggested by Stan Grossman. (Note: I needed to check this just to make sure. While googling Stan Grossman I found out that I was indeed right, and that someone had already noted this in a WordPress blog of their own. Luckily, nothing much was said about it, so I don’t have to worry about being cited for plagiarism. In case you want to look up the reference from Fargo, here’s the script.)

(Note: it was pointed out by a reader that there was an error regarding the Fargo script below.  I have since made the changes; the comment at the bottom of this is inferring to this error, which I have since removed.  -Greg).

In Fargo, Stan Grossman is the right hand man of, Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell), his father-in-law, who don’t really like each other. He seems to know a lot about money: when it comes to financial advice, Stan Grossman is the guy to go to.  Stan also serves as a mediator between Jerry and Wade: when Jerry asks Wade for a loan on the project, to which his his father-in-law responds, “We’re not a bank!”  Although Stan moves in on the same deal with Wade, he always seems to be the level-headed one with common sense.

So how do the two Stan Grossman’s relate?  For this, we need to look at the two characters with which they are associated: Richard, and Jerry Lundegaard.

Jerry Lundegaard, the centerpiece of Fargo, is without a doubt in my mind, the most wholly pathetic character in movie history. As one watches Fargo, it is impossible not to be amazed at just how awful of a person he is: and yet, he is not quite assertive enough to be disliked: instead, a sickly sort of sorrow is felt for him. He appears meek and shy, but his real motives revolve around a pathetic need to make money and prove himself to his father-in-law. As only the Coen Brothers could imagine, he approaches two hitmen to kidnap his own wife: through a series of events, his wife, father-in-law, and others are killed: he is eventually caught and arrested in a motel, and even then, makes a pathetic attempt to escape through a window in his boxers despite the bitter cold.

Richard is also a highly flawed, not-very-likable character. The similarities in character, especially in the early part of the movie, are striking. Just like Jerry, Richard is somewhat awkward, and he puts people down in order to prove a point. Perhaps his most un-likable scene is when he tells Olive that she’ll get fat if she eats ice cream (she pursues this situation herself, and has the chance to ask Miss U.S.A. if she eats ice cream: Miss U.S.A. answers with a resounding yes).

Besides these similarities, both characters are manipulative; and both are obsessed with Stan Grossman and what he can do for them. At this point, however, the two characters branch off in different directions.

Richard obsesses over Grossman until he actually meets him: during his conversation with Grossman, he realizes, ultimately, that not only has Grossman failed him, but his whole life has been turned upside down. He returns to his family a changed man: Grossman never comes back into the question.

Jerry also meets Stan Grossman, but has no closure with him.  Instead, Stan moves in on the deal with Wade when it becomes apparent that Jerry can’t afford.  Jerry, being meek and pathetic, cannot muster the courage to defy Stan Grossman (a large part of this is his fear of his father-in-law).  Jerry is manipulated, and from here on the movie becomes increasingly dark: Jerry ends up in prison, Wade ends up dead, and Stan fades away without getting hurt.

It seems to me that this is a way of saying thank you to the Cohen Brothers.  Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris may have considered Richard a re-creation of Jerry: in a subtle way of paying homage, they simply added Stan Grossman to the mix.  To show the differences between the two characters, Richard was able to confront Stan, and in the end, it made him a better character.  Jerry, however, never could, and so ended the movie being just as pathetic as always.

In a totally seperate incidence, Dayton and Faris film a shot while travelling on the highway: the camera is pointed down at the road, and we see the white dotted lines of the road travelling beneath us. Again, this was a shot utilized by the Coen Brothers: first in their 1986 debut film, Blood Simple; later, and more memorably, in Fargo. In Fargo, the shot was used in the infamous “cop scene”, when the two would be kidnappers are pulled over due to the fact that they didn’t change the dealer plates on their car; this leads to them killing the cop (an absolutely chilling scene), culiminating in them chasing down and killing two passerbys who witnessed them getting rid of the body. As one of the killers chases them down, we see only the dotted white lines of the highway: its sort of a wierd type of tracking shot, when the camera is moving, but it doesn’t look like it.

There is nothing even remotely resembling this scene in Little Miss Sunshine, but it is still a very unique shot, and considering the Stan Grossman parallel, seems like another bit of paying homage. The interesting part: in Little Miss Sunshine, the camera is shooting out the back of the car, showing where they are coming from; in Fargo, the camera is pointed in front of the car, showing where they are going. And so, once again, the similarities are there, but so are the differences.

To sum it all up: I thought Little Miss Sunshine was a tremendous movie, and one of the greatest black comedies of all time, right up there with Pulp Fiction, The Big Lebowsky, and Fargo. So if you haven’t seen it yet….go check it out. (Ofcourse, you probably have….I think I’m one of the last people to see it).

Note: If you’re reading this Jo….hey, sorry I haven’t posted the Imus thing yet…I’m about halfway done, but don’t know if I’ll get to it. I’ll probably finish it after everyone has ceased to care at all about Don Imus and that whole situation….but hey, thanks for checking this out anyway.

I’ll be back later.

Until Next Time,



One thought on “A Quick Review: Little Miss Sunshine

  1. mark engebretson says:

    You say: “In Fargo, Stan Grossman is truly a ghost character: we never meet him…”

    Actually, he is in the film quite a bit. He’s Wade’s partner.

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