Family Argument

A couple weeks from now, I’m guessing, we’re going to start seeing pieces about how Steve Carell is messing with his funnyman handle by playing a suicidal gay gloomhead in Little Miss Sunshine (Fox Searchlight, 7.26).
The lead graph of these pieces will be a rhetorical question — will those who loved Carell’s broadly funny shtick in The 40 Year-Old Virgin (and who can’t wait to see him in Get Smart) go for the mixed-bag, funny-dark humor in his latest film?

Steve Carell doing the old leaping-from-the-van action in Little Miss Sunshine

I’ve said a couple of times before that Carell’s performance in Little Miss Sunshine is his best ever. He’s ten times funnier in this than he was in Virgin. Funnier because he’s playing an ascerbic, very bright Marcel Proust scholar — one who feels quite real and fleshed-out. The laughs may be fewer in Sunshine, but when they happen they seem richer and more invested in something tangible.
Not that this will stop square-peg journalists and their editors from running “Carell is stepping out of the box” pieces. They know, after all, that a lot of people out there like their movie comedians to be funny in a broad and familiar way. These are the good folks who just say no when comedy stars turn up in quirky dark-current laughers, as Jim Carrey found out when he made The Cable Guy.
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It may be that even Christina Applegate, Carell’s Anchorman costar, is feeling a bit alienated by Little Miss Sunshine‘s in-and-out tonality. She addressed the crowd before it played last Sunday night at the LA Film Festival closer, and all she did was snip, snip, snip about how unusual it was and that it goes into dark places, blah, blah.
And then I spoke to a critic friend the next day and he was saying, “I dunno… Carell does a lot of moping in this thing…it may not go over.”
This was after he read my rave review, which I put up the following day (7.3). He also said, “I guess we saw different movies.”

I responded by saying, “You are once again holding down the fort on a small island with three cocoanut trees for sustenance, and a few kindred souls for company.”
And he said, “Well, I’m not sure what that means. Are you presuming that I think that anything that’s popular is bad, or that I like movies that only a `few kindred souls’ like and dislike all else, or that any movie that isn’t popular is bad?
“How do you know that Sunshine will be a hit? Have you done a measurement? I have absolutely no idea how many folks will like Sunshine, and neither does any- one else.
“What I mean is, you need to consider the possibility that it might tank when it opens.”
And I replied, “What this means is that when a film like Sunshine has actual recognizable humanity and doesn’t act like The 40 Year-Old Virgin but gets laughs and at the same time has the character and cojones to rapel down into the caves of darkness only to climb back out and be hah-hah funny again…that’s really unusual.
“You can’t just sit there and go ‘Gee, I don’t know….it didn’t work for me and people in general may hate it.’

As if this needs to be pointed out, a scene from The 40 Year-Old Virgin

“The basic theme of Little Miss Sunshine is that as fucked and miserable as families may feel in each other’s company, they’ll stand up and support each other when dealing with the outside world. That’s a basic truism — families all over the world are like this — and don’t take this the wrong way but you have to be made of silicon chips not to recgognize that.”
I had written earlier that “people went apeshit for Little Miss Sunshine at Sundance last January, and again last Sunday night.”
And this guy replied, “‘Apeshit’ is a wildly exaggerated term. I’ve seen ‘apeshit’ only a few times recently — maybe Me and You and Everyone We Know at Park City’s Raquet Club, and portions of the Palais audience for Babel or Volver. I shouldn’t have to tell you that the Sunshine audiences in Park City or at the Wadsworth last Sunday in no way provide sober gauges for how it’ll be received by real audiences.
“Do you really think that an auditorium full of people from Fox Searchlight, big Fox, and the Los Angeles Film Festival is going to be less than abuzz over that movie?” this guy continued. “I had the distinct impression that there were ‘laughers’ (those nefarious paid folks strategically placed near press during early screenings) seated behind us, and I recognized one outside after the screening.

“Fox Searchlight has has paid good money for bad before — this would hardly be the first time that’s happened, particularly a deal done at Sundance. It may, on the other hand, also do well on its investment. I don’t know, and neither do you and neither do they.”
And then I replied, “You’re speaking as if movies are dice and they may tumble around and come up seven, or they may come up snake-eyes.
“If people don’t like something when it plays in Wichita, then what can you or me or Fox Searchlight do about it? Nothing. But this film is not a pair of dice on a Vegas craps table. It’s a movie with a pulse — a kind of organism with a certain astuteness, a certain alchemy, and a very particular comic tone. (Why am I pointing this out to you? Why don’t you see this?)
“This movie is funny and yet full of raw family material. I’ve got kids, and some- times they do scream and rant and say how much they despise their parents. Seven year-old girls at the dinner table would want to know why their uncle tried to commit suicide, and a lot of them would find it fairly silly that he did so because a love affair with a student fell apart. And every other family has crusty old curmud- geons who tell their sons to fuck themselves and that they can say anything they want.

“And there are hospital bureaucrats who are unfeeling monsters. And there are wicked Orange County witches who live in that horrid Jon Benet Ramsay world. And there are positive-attitude assholes who constantly spout about always winning but who tend to exemplify the other side of the coin. Family members do fight all the time, and wives do attack their husbands as soon as they lose a source of income.
“A lot of it is horrible…despair, gloom, helplessness…and yet it all can turn on a dime and be funny the next minute. It’s a matter of the filmmakers recognizing life as it often feels and behaves and then putting it all together in a darkly ironic, half-comedic, very lifelike form.”
Then the guy said his wife didn’t much care for Sunshine, and that worried me.
“If you don’t like something or don’t think it will go with the general public…well, I can deal with that. But your wife scares me. Your wife and Applegate…a couple of wild cards.”