I hate to admit it, but my primary interest in showing up for the screening was to see Steve Carell try his hand at a semi-serious role as the suicidal gay literature professor.
But it's not Steve Carell's film. It's a startling departure for him, a nuanced and heartfelt performance that's just as strong as his career-making turn in 40 Year Old Virgin. Likewise, this film does not in any way belong to Toni Collette, Greg Kinnear, or Alan Arkin, all of whom are at the absolute top of their games and each of whom is allowed many moments within the ensemble structure to create a complex and compelling character. Hell, the film doesn't even belong to Paul Dano, who's just as good as his more experienced co-stars even though he doesn't have a single line of dialogue in the first 80% of the movie.
No, this film is owned wholly and entirely by a nine-year-old actress named Abigail Breslin. I think a lot of viewers might miss it because she's surrounded by enormously talented performers and is "golly gee whiz" "aw shucks" cute, but this performance is, all hyperbole aside, Oscarworthy. The entire film hangs on her emotional vulnerability and she is achingly real in every moment of joy, sorrow, confusion, desolation, and determination. The closest comparison I can think of is Amy Adams in Junebug. She's that good.
OK, I seem to be writing this review backwards. Let's see if I can pull together a plot description. The film is basically a dark comedy dysfunctional family road trip. It starts out resoundingly bleak. Richard (Kinnear) is a wannabe motivational speaker who in his desperate drive for excellence has become deeply alienated from his family. His wife Sheryl (Collette) tries to keep their family together but is so frustrated with her husband and nerve- shredded by the stresses of her home that it seems like she will cave in at any moment. Also in the home is Steve's elderly father, who is perpetually profane and angry and copes with the disappointments of his life by snorting heroin. Richard and Sheryl are raising two children, the cute but seemingly unremarkable Olive (Breslin) and the perpetually silent, glum, and angry Dwayne (Dano), who is marking off the days until he can go join the Air Force and escape this familial hellhole. Into this enclave of joy and bliss enters Sheryl's brother Frank, who has just been released from the hospital after trying to slit his wrists due to his unrequited love for one of his grad students. When Sheryl tells her brother that she's glad he's alive, he tonelessly responds "that makes one of us."
These are the characters. I know they must seem like pathetic indie stereotypes, but over the course of the film each of them is revealed as a multi-dimensional person struggling miserably but nobly to make the best of a life that is not working out the way they had hoped. And despite the gloomy set-up, this twisted thing becomes the most life-affirming film I've seen since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
It's not a perfect film by any means. At times it feels a little contrived, as if several years of trauma were compressed into two days. And while the climax undeniably represents the most ruthless skewering of beauty pageants in the history of cinema, skewering beauty pageants doesn't in itself really qualify as daring satire.
Nonetheless, the film packs an emotional wallop that's going to take a lot of people by surprise.
And I haven't even mentioned that it happens to be the funniest movie of the year.