In the annual festival of humidity, it’s hot enough without so many dismal movies polluting the ozone even more. I didn’t like Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (a filmed lecture with charts and graphs, not a movie), but I think he’s onto something. We are destroying our planet, and I’m firmly convinced the movies are contributing factors. The latest addition to the summer’s hit list of nauseating creep shows is Miami Vice—but first, how about a few laughs? Little Miss Sunshine and Woody Allen’s Scoop are two little treasures guaranteed to keep you smiling without guilt or embarrassment until the first breeze of autumn.
Little Miss Sunshine is being wrongly marketed as a knockdown comedy riot. It is nothing of the sort. Its black humor is fresh and undeniable, but the laughs are built on a human-recognition factor that keeps you muttering “Oh, yeah.” The film centers on the blind but unshakable determination of a little girl named Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin) to win the Little Miss Sunshine beauty contest for 7-year-olds, and the corkscrew-twisting activities of the five members of her dysfunctional family, who drive Olive from Albuquerque, N.M., to Redondo Beach, Calif., in a van to cheer her on.
When you see the sometimes unbelievable, often harrowing things that happen to the Hoovers on their own personal road to perdition, you might recognize your own family as well. In one of his best screen performances, Greg Kinnear is doubly hilarious as Richard, the square, fussy, anally retentive and thoroughly exasperating preppie dad in little starched and pleated shorts who, in a misguided career as a motivational speaker, has suffered a series of humiliating failures, the latest of which is a nine-step program guide that coaches losers to go out in the world and become winners. Nobody will publish it. Mr. Kinnear is marvelous because as silly as his character is, he plays it deadly serious. The versatile Toni Collette, an Australian chameleon who is different in every film, is Sheryl, the cheerful wife and mother on her way to a nervous breakdown who tries to preach optimism.
Their son Dwayne (Paul Dano, who was memorable as the kid seduced by the pedophile in the highly praised L.I.E.) is a dork who reads Nietzsche and takes a vow of silence, refusing to speak another word until the day he can run away from home and become an Air Force pilot. Steve Carell ( The 40-Year-Old Virgin) is Uncle Frank, a gay Proust scholar with bandaged wrists, sacked from his job as a college professor and recovering from a suicide attempt after falling in love with—and getting dumped by—a male graduate student. Last but never least, there is Alan Arkin as Grandpa, a foul-mouthed, sex-crazed old reprobate who has been kicked out of his retirement home for snorting heroin.
On the road, the van breaks down and they have to push it every time the engine dies. Richard loses the job of his life when his last-chance book deal collapses. Uncle Frank sinks into a bottomless depression in a gas station after he runs into his old boyfriend, who has now taken up with the Proust scholar who replaced him on the faculty. Dwayne discovers he’s colorblind, dashing all hopes for a future in a cockpit. After 700 miles, Grandpa dies of a drug overdose, and without a permit to carry a corpse across state lines, Pop puts the pedal to the metal anyway so they won’t miss the curtain.
Pulling up to the hotel with a stripped gearshift and a body in a blanket on the back seat, the hopeless, hapless Hoovers are a sorry sight. But are they discouraged and down for the count? Is Jessica Simpson tone-deaf? Until they take a look at Olive—ambitious but overweight, near-sighted, bespectacled, homely and heartbreakingly untalented on a stage filled with wannabe JonBenet Ramseys. By the time Little Miss Sunshine reaches its surprise production-number finale, if you’re not cheering, you better join Grandpa.
Engagingly acted by everyone within camera range, wittily written by Michael Arndt and carefully directed with great charm by the team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, this is a feel-good movie that is not dependent on gags or stupid gimmicks, but on intelligently observed, slightly cockeyed people and their interactions. It is positive and uplifting, and a grand time is had by all.
Woody Allen is on a roll. Or maybe I should say he’s on a crumpet. After the brilliant Hitchcockian thriller style of Match Point, he’s now reverted back to his old wry, dry comedy style in Scoop. And he stayed in London to do it. How lucky can we get? In this inspired lunacy, a legendary Fleet Street journalist (Ian McShane) dies and, on the gloomy, fog-enshrouded boat to the afterlife (judging from the hooded figure with the scythe, the boat may not be heading for St. Peter’s pearly gates), gets the scoop of his career when a fellow passenger claims she was murdered because she was about to divulge the secret identity of the notorious “Tarot Card Killer” stalking London: Peter Lyman, a dashing member of high society and the darling of the gossip columns. “What a scoop!” declares the dead reporter—“and I got it first!” Determined that a good headline must never go to waste, he jumps overboard.
Meanwhile, back in London, a vacationing American journalism student named Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson) volunteers from the audience for a tacky vaudeville show featuring an addled and spectacularly third-rate American magician called Splendini (Woody Allen), who promises that he can make her disappear. But once inside his seedy magic “de-materializer box,” she finds to her alarm that it’s already occupied—by the dead newspaperman, who passes the “scoop” on to her. The two bumbling Americans join forces as a father-daughter team of amateur sleuths to check out the facts, investigate the story and maybe win a Pulitzer.
Splendini, whose real name is Sid Waterman from Brooklyn, is a terrible magician who leaves the combination to the suspect’s safe in a coat at the cleaners, and Miss Pransky is a terrible reporter who breaks every rule in the journalism-school handbook and falls in love with her suspect on first sight. Well, natch. Since the rich, handsome, dazzling member of the British nobility who may or may not be the Tarot Card Killer turns out to be Hugh Jackman in a Speedo, it’s all highly understandable. As a presence, he is already an icon. As a performer, he can do anything. There hasn’t been anyone like Hugh Jackman on the stage or screen in 50 years.
Although the evidence is circumstantial, the phony father-daughter act worms its way into the aristocrat’s life. Real tarot cards turn up in a secret hiding place—and even after the Tarot Card Killer confesses, the American nitwits uncover further shocking clues indicating there may be more to the story than anyone knows. Is Mr. Jackman the world’s most misunderstood innocent victim, or is he just a gorgeous murderer? Nobody cares, as long as he doesn’t go away.
I love the fact that Woody has fallen for London. He gets more out of the city than most British directors find there. (He’s already shooting the third installment in his London triptych now.) Match Point followed the structure of A Place in the Sun, but in Scoop he finally gets around to the boating accident he left out of Match Point. Mr. Jackman is as intense as Montgomery Clift, but Ms. Johansson is no plain-Jane patsy like Shelley Winters. If I have any reservation about his direction of Scoop, it is simply about the way he has allowed his neurotic mannerisms to rub off on Ms. Johansson, who lacks the humor to carry off the stuttering anxiety and nervous tics with much inspiration. (She’s lovely, but no Diane Keaton.) No matter. Men, women, small children and all of their dogs and cats will love this movie as long as Mr. Jackman is in it. The movie itself may be intermission Woody Allen, but as a showcase for Hugh Jackman, it’s supersonic star-power memorable.
Miami Vice is crummy, pointless and brain-dead. No revelation there. But I didn’t expect it to be so boring. As the latest example of grown men on a paid vacation using movies as an excuse to get drunk, go to seed, grow beards and turn into mumbling slobs, it doesn’t even have enough energy to keep the audience awake. The old TV series with Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas as vice cops Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs was of zero value, but it had some style, and more dark mood swings than a rock band. The movie just lies there, dumb, empty, Valium’d—and a colossal waste of money. Colin Farrell, as Sonny, is scruffy, ratty and barely able to speak above the lull of a hangover. Jamie Foxx as his sidekick Rico is just slumming. Never mind the fact that they lack chemistry: This duo never seems to be even remotely acquainted. There is no plot, but much hard evidence that everyone involved partied hardy.
Incoherence is writer-director Michael Mann’s middle name. He makes up for a total absence of narrative with sewer talk about “niggers, fags, Nazis, skanks and whores.” (Gee, I never knew Miami was so much fun.) The boys track down drug rings from Colombia to New York via Miami, punctuated by sex scenes, crowd scenes and crash scenes—everything except anything resembling a plot. They can fly planes, blow up entire countries, handle arsenals of weapons—do everything, in fact, except speak correct English. They can head for Cuba in jet-propelled speedboats for a mojito with a sexy Chinese drug lord (Gong Li, of all people). She looks great in spaghetti straps, but you can’t understand a word she says. You have to wait two hours and 15 minutes for the inevitable shootout, where everyone dies except the leads. By that time, it’s not likely you’ll care much about them either. Nobody in Miami Vice comes close to resembling real people. The script is meaningless babble. And the criminal waste of Gong Li is grounds for sending Michael Mann to Hollywood hell for an unlimited stretch at hard labor. For our sins, there are probably four sequels already on the drawing boards at Universal. I used to think Colin Farrell could act, but he’s been in so many lousy movies I’m not sure it even matters anymore. This flick is so bad that it makes you take back what you said about Pirates of the Caribbean.