I enjoy the DeWittian sting of James Wolcott’s writing as much as anyone, but even a good critic can go wrong sometimes. He underestimates Little Miss Sunshine, which resonates far beyond its modest means — even on an environmental scale.
First, Wolcott claims that the ending goes too far, but the fact is that zillions of movie fans, both amateur and pro, profoundly disagree. The Academy nominated both the young actress and the screenplay, which simply doesn’t happen these days in the case of over-the-top comedies, no matter how popular (Wedding Crashers, Mrs. Doubtfire, etc).
And of all the movies this year nominated for best picture, Little Miss Sunshine is almost certainly the most "beloved," as Anne Thompson of The Hollywood Reporter pointed out. It’s been a big hit, both critically and popularly. It’s grossed well over ten times its small budget, and shows every sign of becoming an independent classic along the lines of Sideways, even though its creators were virtual unknowns. Don’t be too shocked if Oscar goes home in the van.
Second, Wolcott sneers at the "cute gimmicks" of the comedy, but what if these "gimmicks" aren’t really that cute? Little Miss Sunshine and Children of Men share a central metaphor that has big enviro implications. In both stories the characters depend for their survival — physical or emotional — on a car that breaks down and must be pushed.
In Children of Men, it’s one of the best and most suspenseful scenes in the movie. If they can’t get that little car going — and the hill is not enough to start it — they’re as good as dead. In Little Miss Sunshine, the family must together push an old VW van — a symbol of the ’60s if there ever was one — to have any hope of completing their journey together.
Translation: idealism today has collapsed. Our society’s mechanisms are breaking down, our culture has gone horribly wrong (be it with beauty contests or infertility), it’s blazingly hot, and we can only depend on those who love us.
How far away is that from the dire message of Children of Men?
No doubt some will say this is an over-analysis of a dopey comedy. Perhaps. But art — and movies — work in mysterious ways.