It's a wacky road movie, with a dysfunctional family so rudderless that they make the Addams Family seem straight-laced. However, the Hoovers have an adventure that brings them together in a wild, but genuinely heartwarming way.
The Albuquerque clan is headed by wannabe motivational speaker Richard (Greg Kinnear), who obsessively inflicts his nine-step success program on his captive family audience. His beleaguered second wife, Sheryl (Toni Collette), is close to throwing in the towel. Her Proust professor brother, Frank (Steve Carell), has been released from a hospital in Sheryl's care after a wrist-slitting suicide attempt.
Chronically depressed 15-year-old Dwayne (Paul Dano) has pledged to remain silent until he enters the Air Force flight Academy. In his notebook, he declares that he "hates everyone." When Frank asks whether that includes his family, he underlines "everyone."
Kindred spirits, heroin-snorting Grandpa (Alan Arkin) and tiny teenybopper Olive (Abigail Breslin) are focused on her winning the national "Little Miss Sunshine" pageant in California. Grandpa is training his granddaughter with moves that are not revealed until the movie's hilarious climax.
Although the family appears on the point of collapse, the Hoovers decide to stage a do-or-die try at driving Olive to the pageant to keep the little girl's heart from breaking. The 700-mile road trip is truly an endurance test. Their yellow VW van has a shattered clutch, only permitting a startup when all the occupants provide a running push. Later, the horn won't stop honking.
Screenwriter Michael Arndt has created riotous dialogue that keeps the actors bouncing off each other as in a pinball game. The story is laced with details designed to bring us closer to the characters, while making us laugh with every revelation. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris referee the action for maximum impact, not the least of which is an outrageous sequence involving a corpse, porno magazines and a cop. Go see "Little Miss Sunshine." It's the cleverest, quirky comedy since "Sideways."