Richard: Oh my God, I'm getting pulled over. Everyone, just... pretend to be normal
Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris
My rating 3.5/5
The first feature film by music video directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton is a real accomplishment in modern independent cinema. While it treads the old ground of classics like The Royal Tenenbaums or even The Simpsons which lovingly poke fun at dysfuntional families, it has gathered together such an almighty ensemble cast that many of the films flaws are forgiveable.
The story centres around the Hoover family. Richard and Sheryl are the parents, dishevelled and clinging to a tiny hope of success; the children, Olive and Duane, are polar opposites but seem to maintain the closest bond of the film. Duane is an angry teenager who hasn't spoken in months due to a vow of silence in honour of Friedrich Nietzche. Olive is a bright, sweet, adorable 7 year old who, by default, has won a place in a state beauty pageant. They are joined by Sheryl's suicidal gay brother Frank and Richard's cranky, heroin-addicted dad. Every single performance is this film is so spot-on that you almost feel sorry to leave these characters as the film ends. The cast are among the best ensemble casts ever to grace the silver screen. As they all have their background in comedy (except for Abigail Breslin who is too young to have a background in anything), they understand all about timing and which notes to strike between comedy and tragedy.
What this film lacks is a great script. While it has some wonderful elements, it does seem at times quite lazy and disjointed. There are some comic moments which felt a bit too slapstick for the film and while these scenes were funny, they never quite fit into the film. Also, the film hints at some rather disturbing issues about the relationship between granddaughter and grandfather which are never properly addressed.
Having said that, there is some choice dialogue in the film, most of which is wonderfully delivered by Alan Arkin as Grandpa.
The strongest theme of the film is that you are only a loser by not attempting to do something. It is in this that the key to each character lies. It relates to Uncle Frank as he comes to the realisation that his suicide attempt was just an easy way out, Duanes vow of silence is an attempt to accomplish something, and the whole family taking a road trip they can't afford in order to take pudgy, bespectacled Olive to a futile beauty pageant also ties strongly into this message.
The family's old Volkswagon van becomes a character in the story too as it's gradual dilapidation reflects the family's ever more disastrous journey. One by one, the characters worst fears are realised and their dreams shattered but the film focuses on how these experiences make people grow and learn. This is what I believe makes this film about a family who keep on losing such a cheerful experience.
Despite its flaws, I recommend seeing this film for it's superb characters and it's inspiring message. Also, to try predict which of the four worthy men will be honoured with a Best Supporting Actor nomination next spring.
- Charlene Lydon 12/9/06