As an actor, Allen is both welcome and borderline insufferable, like a favorite uncle with uncontrolled flatulence. He can’t modulate the fluttering hands and spasmodic stops and starts; he’s like a Woody Allen impersonator. Actually, he is a Woody Allen impersonator—the persona having long since lost its connection to the man. That said, the performance is almost a triumph. He’s wonderful when he jabbers nonsensically at a succession of puzzled English nobles—he has a touch of Groucho. If he hadn’t conceived of the man as a Broadway Danny Rose–ish loser, both he and Scoop might have soared.
Johansson doesn’t have the natural buoyancy to play a screwball Nancy Drew; her normal delivery (which many find alluring) suggests lazy self-entitlement. But she’s smart enough to know what’s needed (a young Diane Keaton), and manages to rouse herself. Jackman gives the wittiest performance as the movie’s breezy straight man. Although McShane deserved a better exit and the windup makes no sense, this is the first Allen picture since Sweet and Lowdown that doesn’t leave a bad odor in its wake.
Little Miss Sunshine is an enchanting anthem to loserdom—a dark comedy that piles on setback after setback and yet never loses its helium. It centers on a family road trip from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Redondo Beach, California—to a kiddie beauty pageant in which 7-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin) is a finalist. It’s odd, because Olive isn’t kiddie-pageant material: She’s a pretty, unaffected little dumpling with a stuck-out tummy. She clearly doesn’t have a prayer. But a fierce determination clings to the family’s have-a-nice-day yellow Volkswagen bus, which looks so tacky against the mythic desert vistas. The bus needs a group push to start, but it never stalls. Like the movie, it runs on sheer pluckiness.
At first, I feared the directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, would hit the QUIRKY button too hard. But Michael Arndt’s script has so much comic invention that the whimsy doesn’t stagnate, and the characters grow in stature and become affecting. Olive’s dad is a failed entrepreneur, and Greg Kinnear finds layer upon layer of vulnerability in his can-do sitcom heartiness. As the foulmouthed, heroin-addicted grandpa, Alan Arkin shows off the kind of genius timing that leavens his character’s nihilism, and Paul Dano plays the weirdo brother (who has taken a vow of silence in deference to Nietzsche) with such angry, beseeching eyes that the teenage misfit is more than a one-joke character. As Olive’s Proust-scholar uncle, who has just botched a suicide attempt after losing a lover to another gay Proust scholar, Steve Carell gives a superb interior performance—a man who could easily take to his bed in a cork-lined room were it not for a plump little girl.
The key to Little Miss Sunshine is that every single one of these people is going to come up against a major obstacle and, in the great American tradition . . . lose. Lose crushingly. Lose enough to make a person want to pack it in. But when life hands them a lemon, they don’t just make lemonade. They learn to spike it with whiskey and dance their friggin’ heads off.