Ever since it ascended into prominence in 1989, every edition of the Sundance Film Festival has featured at least one film that is praised to the heavens by the Park City crowds, only to look silly and decidedly minor when viewed in an environment not dominated by thin air and people desperately searching for the Next Big Thing–such “classics” as “The Spitfire Grill” and “Happy, Texas” immediately spring to mind.This year’s version appears to be “Little Miss Sunshine,” a decidedly average comedy-drama about a dysfunctional family making a road trip from New Mexico to California in a dilapidated VW bus so that young daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) can participate in the titular kiddie beauty contest. The trouble is that screenwriter Michael Arndt and co-directors Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris spend so much time trying to make their characters quirky and colorful–Dad (Greg Kinnear) is a failed motivational speaker, Mom (Toni Collette) is slowly going nuts from the strain of keeping everyone sane and happy, Grandpa (Alan Arkin) is a foul-mouthed junkie and porn afficionado, son Dwayne (Paul Dano) is a sullen punk who has taken a vow of silence until he makes it into flight school and gay uncle Frank (Steve Carell) is suicidally depressed over the end of an affair with a grad student–that they have failed to give them anything interesting to do.
As a result, most of the film involves them bickering within the confines of the car, coming to terms with each other outside of it and occasionally becoming involved in such weirdness as the stealing of a corpse and climaxes with a sequence–Olive’s performance at the pageant–that is so bewildering in both concept and execution that you want to shake the filmmakers by their shoulders and ask what they possibly could have been thinking. Some of the performances here are good–I especially liked the contributions from Carell and Breslin–and there are a couple of nice scenes (the best being the one in which the family coaxes Olive, who is maybe nine years old, into eating her ice cream after her jerkwad dad reminds the tyke that it is fattening) but too much of “Little Miss Sunshine” consists of a group of actors doing slight variations of their previous performances (how many times must we see Greg Kinnear playing a self-satisfied prig?) in scenes that veer between crude slapstick and cruder moments in which each person gets their own perfectly timed crisis and resolution.In some quarters, “Little Miss Sunshine” has been described as this year’s “Sideways” and for the life of me, I cannot begin to understand that–this is more like a variation of “National Lampoon’s Vacation” that is in desperate need of its own Cousin Eddie.