Ostensibly it’s the Venn diagram intersection of “people on the edge of a nervous breakdown take a road trip together” and “dysfunctional family pulls together in spite of itself to give the most innocent member a shot at the happiness they all secretly yearn for”. While this would set the movie up to be rather formulaic, the movie is most definitely not so!
Instead of formulaic lessons being delivered, at the end of the movie I found myself considering a meditation on how people find different compulsions to which they can devote themselves so that their lives seem livable. And these compulsions need not be addictions per se: are you addicted to some vision of being the best at something, of maintaining some strange goal, to a substance, to a myth of how you can never be a loser again, etc.
Many time black comedy writers allow their characters to fall into caricature which shows a certain black-heartedness and a certain mean intent to the audience (What you make me care about them and then you screw with them, thanks!?), this movie never does that, even when it could have been oh-so-easy to do. Steve Carrell’s (40 year-old virgin, NBC’s The Office) shows a talent for real drama not unlike the brilliant dramatic turns handed in by rubber-faced Jim Carrey in his more serious roles. Carrell’s constraint lets him portray a gay Proust scholar recovering from a suicide attempt in a way that is sweet, and honest, and fresh from the edge of seeking death without having to adopt any of the Harvey Fierstien schtick (despite being gay there will be no commenting on fashion moments, no Liza Minelli in-jokes, or ham-handed innuendo).
Greg Kinnear does a great job as a motivational speaker aspirant whose “9 rules” methodology is being worked as a means to launch him into the rarified air of the “7 Habits”. His commitment to not being a loser forces him to stop being emotionally available to his wife and family in many spots, and he comes to the good realization you would hope he would: but without any dialog-based “Oh I get it, being a winner is being a good father” scene, instead he (imagine this) acts and shows us his evolution without a word. Amazing talent.
The rest of the cast all deserve accolades, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin.
Naturally the most subtle and amazing performance comes from the very young Abagail Breslin whose subtle mastery of emotions in her little-girl face is really something to behold. Never for a moment do you think “this girl is acting” you just follow her hopes and dreams up and down. There’s a scene involving winner-obsessed dad engaging in a Socratic discussion about whether she should order ice cream (“Ice cream has a lot of cream and cream has a lot of fat….Are the winners of beauty pageant skinny or fat?”) which breaks your heart for her, for him, and for the sad, sad world we live in where we know that this discussion is required.
( The visual answer to this is given subtly by the directors but moments later )
Lastly the movie absolutely skewers the pageant industry ( as if the press coverage of JonBenet Ramsey wasn’t enough ). There’s something wrong about airbrushing little girls' faces and putting them in gowns until they look like someone planted 35 year-old womens' heads upon their diminutive frame turning them into little bobble-heads. Minute by minute I started to get that same creepy feeling I get when i see “burnt out former star quarterback Dad pressuring bookish son” in movies. The insanity of it really hangs itself without any commentary from the cast.
All in all, it was a really good movie, seek it out, it’s got a good heart deep down, which we all know about minute 5, but didn’t want to be preached at us.
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