‘Sunshine’ brightens the screen 

Swinging ‘Idlewild’ is a Southern-fried ‘Moulin Rouge.’

ENLIGHTENED: By Miss Sunshine.
  • ENLIGHTENED: By Miss Sunshine.

“Try to act normal,” dad Richard Hoover tells the rest of his New Mexico-based clan when their beat-up yellow VW van with an incessant honking horn is pulled over by a cop on their 900-mile journey to the Little Miss Sunshine contest in California. We know by this midpoint in “Little Miss Sunshine” that there is no way this group can try to be normal. But more importantly, can they even learn to accept each other before this journey’s done?

“Little Miss Sunshine,” the delightful feature film directorial debut of husband-and-wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, chronicles the journey of this angst-ridden family. The family’s daughter, Olive (Abigail Breslin), has qualified for the contest, by default, and the only way the family can feasibly allow her to attend is to pile everyone into the VW van and drive in two days to Redondo Beach, Calif. Along the way, the clutch breaks, heroine-snorting granddad dies and a troubled son with a vow of silence finds out he’s not going to realize his one dream –- all this threatening to sidetrack the trip and ruin Olive’s chance in the contest.

Dayton and Faris bring together one of the year’s best ensemble performances. The script, written by first-timer Michael Arndt, is smooth, rich and filled with humor. Richard (Greg Kinnear), the father of this tormented bunch, is a failed motivational speaker whose pitch seems to be “winners are better than losers,” although he argues that it takes nine steps to get there. His wife Sheryl, played well by Toni Collette, is the glue that keeps this family together, believing that someday luck will find them. Son Dwayne (Paul Dano) spends his free time reading Friedrich Nietzsche and not talking while, on the other hand, Olive is curious and talkative and she sparkles over her giant plastic-rimmed glasses. Expletive-tossing Grandpa (Alan Arkin), who’s been run out of a retirement home, and Frank (Steve Carell), who’s a leading Proust scholar and who has recently lost his boyfriend and university teaching job, provide priceless moments of comic relief as they all push, roll, sputter and honk their way closer and closer to California.

Only at the end of this road trip do we come to understand its purpose. The film turns on young Olive’s participation in the beauty contest. Walking through the dressing room, Olive appears undeterred by the botox-infused prepubescent blondes who’ve all been spray-painted brown. With her plump belly protruding through her one-piece bathing suit, her long brown hair pulled back simply in a pony tail, Olive stands awkwardly alone as these young girls prance and smile, twist and turn on the stage before her. Clearly, she is outmatched.

And though “Little Miss Sunshine” is a great send-up of these silly pre-teen beauty pageants with their pompous organizers and overbearing parents, thankfully it’s not a film about a beauty pageant. And it’s not about winning or losing. Olive isn’t going to win, and it doesn’t matter whether she wins. This is a film about a family; their metaphorical journey through the absurd toward happiness and how it takes a little girl in giant glasses to get them get there.

A mighty fine journey it is, and a must-see.

— Blake Rutherford

Wild about ‘Idlewild’

I’ve never been a big fan of musicals. On stage, maybe I could stand their characters’ tendency to burst into song at the drop of a hat. On screen, however, big vocal numbers always come across looking a bit too artificial for my taste. Film, for me, is about being a fly on the wall of other people’s lives. When characters bust out singing in the middle of the action, the illusion dissolves, and I’m reminded that they are, in fact, performers — folks paid to perform just for me.

That said, my reluctance toward the genre has softened in recent years, primarily thanks to daring, clever additions to the genre such as “Chicago” and “Moulin Rouge.” By allowing some narrative concessions for viewers who grew up knowing the movie musical only as an anachronism, those two films have made it OK for characters to sing onscreen again.

Hip new-millennium musicals now have a hip-hop counterpart: the raucous, raunchy and altogether delightful “Idlewild.” Starring the duo known as Outkast — Andre “Andre 3000” Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton — “Idlewild” is a Southern-fried “Moulin Rouge;” an unapologetic tribute to the freedom to be found inside black honkytonks of the Jim Crow South. It might just be the film that folds the sound of swing back into mainstream hip-hop.

Set in the 1930s, Idlewild is the story of intrigue, greed, love and loss at a fictional Georgia juke joint called “Church.” Andre Benjamin stars as Percival, a shy mortician who moonlights as Church’s innovative piano player. Antwan Patton, meanwhile, plays Percival’s friend Rooster — a philandering bootlegger with an eye on taking over the club. All is well until the arrival of traveling singer Angel (Paula Patton, Antwan Patton’s wife), and the announcement that Church’s liquor supplier, Spats (Ving Rhames), has decided to sell out and retire. Before long, things go bad, two men end up dead, and low-level thug Trumpy (Terrence Howard) ends up in charge. With Angel and Percival planning on skipping town after her gig is over and $25,000 in gangster money missing from the club, the action soon leads to a murderous end.

The best thing about “Idlewild” is the music — a fusion of ragtime, big band, and hip-hop that will keep you tapping your toes long after the credits have left the screen. Too, writer/director Bryan Barber makes sure that “Idlewild” is a beautiful thing to look at, full of dazzling shots and quirky details so innovative that this reviewer often found himself smiling. Rooster’s conscience, for instance, is a trash-talking rooster stamped into the side of a silver whiskey flask. In another scene, we ride a gangster’s bullet until it almost finds its mark, lodged and smoking in the bible a character carries over his heart. In yet another scene, the carved inhabitants of dozens of cuckoo clocks that hang over Percival’s bed sing along as he croons about his fear of passing time.

Though there are times when the two storylines — Angel/Percival and Trumpy/Rooster — get a little too much air between them, and the story takes a number of unneeded detours, a myriad of sins can be forgiven if a movie is both entertaining and clever. “Idlewild” is all that and more. A rollicking, rousing film full of songs that seamlessly bridge decades of musical evolution, “Idlewild” has “Broadway hit” written all over it, and will surely make the jump from the screen to the stage in coming months. For now, it’s one of the rare musicals that can actually speak to the younger generation.

— David Koon


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