All happy families are alike. All dysfunctional families, at least in the movies, are unhappy — and unhilarious — in different ways. If you’re going to get on the wavelength of Little Miss Sunshine, you’ve got to be able to enjoy a comedy in which the characters fit into hermetically cute, predetermined sitcom slots. The members of the Hoover clan include the ineffectual boob of a father (Greg Kinnear), who’s desperate to market his annoyingly unoriginal ”9 Steps” motivational program; a saintly sourpuss mom (Toni Collette); her gay brother, a suicidal Proust scholar (Steve Carell); the teen son (Paul Dano), who hates his family so much that he hasn’t spoken in a year; and Grandpa (Alan Arkin), a grouch who stokes his X-rated I got nothin’ to lose! commentary by snorting heroin.
Sorry, folks, but these are not organic characters; they’re walking, talking catalogs of screenwriter index-card data. One can’t deny, though, that there’s an idiosyncratic plastic cleverness to Little Miss Sunshine. As the family drives to Redondo Beach so that 7-year-old Olive (the charming Abigail Breslin) can compete in the Little Miss Sunshine preteen pageant, the movie shrouds its synthetic soul in a patina of ”indie” realism: the leisurely rhythms, the lovely desert road-movie vistas, the terrific actors doing what they can to alchemize schlock into gold. The beauty-pageant climax is pure hypocrisy, as the movie mocks the freakish baby-whore contestants yet celebrates Olive for doing, in essence, just what they do. Smarmy? Yes, but more than that, not funny.