Very funny in spots, now seems more contrived in others. Little Miss Sunshine predates the 2008 financial crash though there is still a mourning for a past ideal of America that the film values, longs for, and represents as now lacking. Steve Carrell is very convincing as the gay brother; the relationship between him and his sister (the marvelous Toni Collette who is wasted but nonetheless very good here) made touching in small details: the holding of hands, the looks. The film is a bit crude; the jokes mostly revolving around pretending to find scandalous and funny what comes out of Alan Arkin’s mouth and what the little girl (Abigail Breslin) does. I found the scenes with the policeman chuckling at the pornography rather forced and somewhat sad. I would say it was an easy indictment of contemporary America except so few films attempt any critique at all that any effort must be appreciated. It was a big box-office hit.
You may have to be middle-aged to like this movie but I am and I do. It’s not a great film. Visually it looks like a TV movie with lots of close-ups and hand-held camera. It’s a bout a devoted middle-class couple, Kay and Arnold Soames (Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones) who love each other but have given up on their sex life. She wants to do something about it. He’s happy to let it be. They end up seeing a therapist (Steve Carrell).
The device of the therapist which structures the movie is by-the-numbers plotting and the Steve Carrell character as a character is extraneous: the movie needs the figure of therapist to tell the story but that therapist could have been anybody. The story itself exhibits a corny and rather naive belief in therapy so beloved by American culture – as if counselling were a cure-all religion with the therapist as a new, less judgmental, priest – it’s a religion with an overt cash nexus — pay money and the therapist promises to deliver a better, happier life — but with no threat of fire and brimstone.
False as the film is, there is nonetheless something that rings true about the depiction of the relationship itself. The little every day things, awkwardness, loneliness, failed attempts to communicate with a partner, the fumbled and unrealized efforts at sex. The audience I saw it with reacted appreciatively to all these attempts, as if they too knew what the film was talking about. They recognized themselves in Streep and, even more so, their husbands or partners in Tommy Lee Jones.
Streep is both actressy, which is to say fake, and true. One just has to accept that it doesn’t matter that she rarely ‘is’ on screen, that she always ‘Acts’. Her careful construction is such a good indication of the ‘true’ that it passes itself off as the real thing. Tommy Lee Jones is terrific: angry, embarrassed, quarrelsome, loving, afraid to say how he feels, afraid to lose her, loving and in love without being attracted. It’s a great performance. One has to give Streep her due as well, it’s a ‘great-lady-as typical-hausfrau’ performance, but the way she crosses her legs, how she dares to show her wrinkles and botch her blow job is quite daring. These are great actors taking risky chances that pay off. Too bad the movie isn’t better. But let’s appreciate it for what it is: an exploration of middle-aged sexuality that rarely appears on screen and that Streep currently seems to have a monopoly on (e.g. It’s Complicated). I’m very glad I saw it.