Steve Carrell’s wonderful performance in the film Little Miss Sunshine is a Proustian moment all of its own – and a surprisingly accurate insight into our fears of tackling big Proustian missions in our own lives.
An amusing contemporary reference to Proust is the 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine, which features Steve Carrell as a morbidly depressed gay Proust scholar. At the start of the film, Carrell’s character attempts suicide after losing his post-graduate student lover to a rival colleague who’s overtaken him as “America’s Foremost Proust Scholar”. After his suicide attempt, he’s required to move in with his sister’s family, and gets taken along like damaged goods on an ill-advised road trip to a Californian kiddie beauty pageant.
Like his literary muse, Carrell’s character is withdrawn, pedantic, narcissistic, self-involved and self-pitying. It helps that Carrell looks rather like Proust, with the same straggly beard and those big mournful looking chocolate lozenge eyes, expressing an affecting sense of confusion and uselessness out in the big wide world. He pulls off a remarkable feat of making an audience feel sympathy for a withdrawn elitist, who before long is throwing his lot in with the regular people. “I’m the foremost Proust scholar in America!”, he pants as he helps kick-starts the family’s ailing Combi van and runs behind it, throwing himself through the van’s sliding door into safety.
Carrell’s character articulates the secret fear that many of us have about reading Proust, falling in love, or attempting anything that requires time and energy and requires us to focus on certain things and exclude other possibilities. What if you get to the end of it all and it wasn’t worth it? I have this fear about reading Proust, as I have fear about almost anything I do. What if, in choosing to do something, I lose the chance to do something else which may be more rewarding? How do I know that the choices I make will be worth it in the end? What if I finish my year of reading Proust and find myself a year older and no more enlightened, enriched or shaggable than I am now? Is there any guarantee in life that the result will justify the process to get there?
If you stick with this line of thinking for too long, you start to wonder how anyone gets out of bed in the morning, and the thought of Marcel’s cork-lined room seems more and more appealing. But I’m not ready to be a shut-in yet. I want to see if Proust is more accessible than his reputation suggests – to see if he’s funny, to see if he can get me off, or to see if he can teach me something.