Why all the hate for Little Miss Sunshine?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Feb. 22 2007 1:46 PM

Quirky in a Good Way

Why all the hate for Little Miss Sunshine?

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Corliss' piece recalls the weird hostility that greeted Wes Anderson's 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums as well as the backlash against sensitive jokester Zach Braff in the wake of Garden State, his mushy 2004 comedy. (A middling effort with a few good laughs, but again, why all the hate?) Like Little Miss Sunshine, The Royal Tenenbaums emerged from a festival debut and became a genuine art-house blockbuster, earning more than $50 million in American theaters. Critics admitted that The Royal Tenenbaums was smart and funny, but they groused that it was (in A.O. Scott's words) "unbearably show-offy."

What's strange is how seriously the critics took Anderson's explicitly, indeed broadly, comic affectations. When I first saw The Royal Tenenbaums, I laughed a lot. I took its deliberate style—the flat affect, the flagrantly symmetrical frames packed with eccentric detail, the storybook narration—to be a kind of visual slapstick. It was Python-esque in its excess but decidedly Andersonian in its fussiness (which was also excessive, and also funny). And the style, crucially, set up the film's cartoonish physical humor, as when lovelorn Richie Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson) forces us to imagine what a real meltdown on the center court of Wimbledon would look like, and when drugged-out family friend Eli (Owen Wilson) slams his convertible into the Tenenbaum mansion, flies through the living-room window and, sitting up, points his painted face at his feet and asks, "Where's my other shoe?" If this is a rogue indie auteur's self-referential preening, I thought at the time, well, that can be funny, too.

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My favorite marriage of indie-quirk and broad humor is Miranda July's exquisite Me and You and Everyone We Know, about an emotionally damaged shoe salesman and the waiflike performance artist who falls for him. (How's that for indie high concept?) Me and You did not become an indie-plex blockbuster, but it did win festival prizes from Sundance to Cannes. (Critics, though they mostly loved it, tended to worry that other critics would hate it for seeming precious, quirky, etc.)

Against (again) a backdrop of trauma and loneliness, the film's characters—children, teenagers, thirtysomethings, and septuagenarians—were thrown into an eerie matrix of sexually tinged relationships. This sounds dicey, but July handled these interactions so delicately that they came off as not only appropriate but redemptive. And hilarious. The film's funniest and most affective subplot involved an Internet sex-chat between an unwitting gallery manager and a 7-year-old boy. There was absolutely nothing exploitative in these scenes. But July was working with a child, so she tapped the child's world for the secret ingredient in the episode's high-minded, Caméra d'Or-winning humor. That secret ingredient was poop.

Matt Feeney is a writer in Oakland. You can email him and follow him on Twitter.