Here is what I think the producers were thinking: let us solve problem of Vacation. All sorts of stuff goes wrong in this road trip movie, many of them similar to the dilemmas in Vacation (death of an elderly family member, car troubles) so similar in fact that I think it is an homage to the classic. But the homage has too prominent a place in this movie. A homage should be a reference but not a central driving arc of the movie. Here is what I am thinking: maybe the writers thought they were perfecting some of the problems faced by the Griswolds, but they are wrong.
A review of a new road trip movie deserves some discussion of the search for identity. A uniquely American genre, the road trip is a national search for an identity, or a families search for its identity. My conclusions about what this movie prescribes is below, but is fairly obvious from the beginning. Once we learn the story of Steven Carrell’s character the lesson of the movie is set and the remainder is merely a reinforcing of the lesson. I find Chris Vogna to be correct that the life lesson is well-woven into the fabric of the story that it is bearable. But not by much.
This movie is not an improvement to the road trip genre. In fact, I am scared to see the other entries at Sundance if this was the darling of the festival. It was a fun movie, but not worth more than the $7 matinee price I paid for it. Here is the problem I allude to above. In Vacation Clark Griswold continues to drive across country despite all of these horrible events when the easy response, and the most likely, is to turn around go home. Now I do not subscribe to the theory that this is a problem because Vacation (and this is the genius of the movie) has the perfect solution, make Clark Griswold more than a funny loser by making him a funny lunatic.
Little Miss Sunshine tries to solve the problem by making us fall in love with the cute little girl, the supposed Miss Sunshine. They press on because the girl wants to go compete in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant, but the problem is that we do not fall in love with her. We watch the movie waiting for the moment we realize why the characters are willing to do this for the girl, but, there is the catch; if I were Greg Kinear I would also press on for my little girl, although when the conflict with the brother plays out I would then turn it around. The girl has never asked to press on despite the problems and the way the girl’s character develops I think she would gladly offer to have the family go home.
The gimmick of the movie about her performance is clearly highlighted and we are made well aware of our anticipation. We know that we are supposed to fall in love with her after her performance, but even then we don’t. There also is little time left in the movie for her to work on us with her newfound capital.
The ending is obvious and predictable, except the message is almost too political to stomach. Yes, we should all be happy with ourselves even if we are not all winners. We should try to be happy but also not beat ourselves up over our shortcomings, let alone others’. The critique of child beauty pageants is funny but too obvious and too gross.
The movie is formulaic. It takes several people that have nothing in common and are all supposedly losers in their own rights and put them in a small car for a long trip, since they are family it is supposed to make some sense. Then throw some unusual complications at them and let them laugh until they realize their hang-ups and all come together to fight a common foe. Despite the plot-by-numbers it is a fun movie and worth some money. For me I am putting the threshold at $7. I would easily pay more to see Vacation and even Road Trip.