Review: Sunshine Cleaning
4 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, “Sunshine Cleaning,” an offbeat indie that targets your heartstrings and your funny bone with equal earnestness, has been leaving viewers and reviewers with a sense of dramedic déjà vu. Backed by two of the producers of “Little Miss Sunshine,” another ray-coated festival sweetheart, this close cousin has a lot of the same ingredients as the 2006 Oscar-winning hit. There's a precocious little kid, a van that calls to mind that iconic yellow bus and even '06 Best Supporting Actor Alan Arkin, back to play yet another outspoken, goofball grandfather. Oh yeah, and there's that title. It's easy to point out the similarities here and deride the new film because of them. But though the formula looks familiar, “Sunshine Cleaning,” directed by Christine Jeffs (“Sylvia”) and written by newcomer Megan Holley, has enough of its own quirky qualities and heart to still feel fresh and affecting. And it's helped immensely by two glowing performances from Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, two of today's most talented young actresses.
Rose Lorkowski (Adams) hasn't done much that she's proud of lately. In high school, she was the captain of the cheerleading squad and girlfriend of the star quarterback but, now, in her early thirties, she's a single mother who cleans houses to (barely) make ends meet. She still sleeps with the quarterback, in seedy motels on Saturday nights, except he's married to someone else and has kids of his own. As unhealthy and dead-end as Rose's circumstances may seem, her situation is a bona-fide success story compared to that of her slightly younger sister, Norah (Blunt), a textbook slacker who can't hold a job and still lives with their father, Joe (Arkin). When an incident forces Rose to seek better schooling for her ADHD-addled son, Oscar (Creepy-But-Cute Kids Club member Jason Spevack), she turns to the quarterback, Mac (Steve Zahn), for advice. Mac, now a cop, tells Rose to get into the “racket” of crime scene clean-up – the maid duty of the macabre – which, for some, rakes in up to $3,000 per job. Rose is game. She recruits Norah as her business partner, adopts the peppy moniker of the title as her business name and buys a cheap, old van to be her business headquarters-on-wheels. What follows is a somewhat obligatory but satisfactorily original road to giggles, tears and self-discovery.
Depending on your sense of humor, scrubbing blood off of walls and disposing of mattresses soaked in God-knows-what might sound like a sour mix for a heartfelt comedy, or a fail-safe recipe for genuine laughs. It's both, really, and while the naysayers have ample room to object, I found that the folks involved here did a fine, balanced job of making the thematic opposites attract. Holley's screenplay, albeit a bit too adherent to the indie-movie-oddity checklist (did Norah really need tattoos, drug issues, daredevil activities and a lesbian encounter?), has wit and charm and eventually makes profound human experience its chief focus. For these sisters, what was first a disgusting and degrading – and comical – enterprise becomes a window into the shattered lives of others and a way to finally achieve some personal growth and pride. (Moving moment alert: Rose quietly comforts an old woman whose husband's suicide left a mess in a bedroom. Later, Rose upstages her snooty high school pals at a baby shower/reunion by confidently describing her line of work.) The film has a rhythmic emotional energy, drawing you in on a wave of laughter and then sideswiping you with its poignant undercurrent. The transition is smooth, usually resisting melodrama, and the characters react realistically to their evolving scenarios. At the very least, Holley and Jeffs deserve points for choosing such an oft-overlooked profession as the vessel for their story. Really, how many crime scene clean-up crews do you know?
A great deal of the movie's naturalness can be credited to Adams and Blunt, two women who are more than capable of truthfully conveying a vast range of emotions. Separately, we've seen both actresses excel at comedy (Blunt in “The Devil Wears Prada,” Adams in “Enchanted,” among other things) and drama (Blunt in “My Summer of Love,” Adams in “Doubt,” among other things). Together, they are a dream team of cinematic and sisterly chemistry, feeding off of each other's cues with believable comfort and ace comedic timing. Individually, too, they are outstanding. Both are given private scenes of humor and heartache that contain some of the film's best moments. A tender backstory involving Rose's and Norah's late mother effectively establishes an unbreakable bond much like the one seen in 2005's "In Her Shoes" with Cameron Diaz and Toni Colette. Adams and Blunt are the best screen sisters since, even bringing depth to bits that should have stayed on the cutting room floor (such as a cute running joke about a CB radio that runs a little too far). Kudos to the casting director for landing these two lovely ladies in one place.
Shame on the casting director for tapping Arkin to play the grandfather, an obvious ploy to attract fans of that other “Sunshine” film. Arkin delivers a carbon copy of his Academy Award-winning performance, right down to the unconventional wisdom he offers his eager grandchild, the only person who takes his wack-a-doo behavior seriously. Is it entertaining? For sure, but it's distractingly reminiscent and it's proof-positive that the 76-year-old's victory two years ago was little more than an honorary bone tossed to an esteemed veteran. (Unless, of course, he scores a nomination for his work here as well, which is unlikely.) Moving on, more gratifying are the other supporting players, namely Clifton Collins Jr. (“Capote,” “Traffic”) as a mild-mannered, one-armed cleaning supply store clerk who builds model airplanes and becomes a sort of surrogate father to Oscar. Collins Jr. gives a sweet and subtle portrayal that adds a new dimension to his increasingly impressive filmography. Still, he's no match for Adams and Blunt, the winning dynamic duo who put the sunshine in “Sunshine Cleaning.”