A film review by Craig J. Koban September 8, 2009


2009, R, 102 mins.

Rose: Amy Adams / Norah: Emily Blunt / Joe: Alan Arkin / Oscar: Jason Spevack / Mac: Steve Zahn

Directed by Christine Jeffs / Written by Megan Holly

I typically don’t like it when a movie goes out of its way to use a past film’s success as a cheap and manipulative marketing tool.  

Case in point is SUNSHINE CLEANING, which has been sold to the masses as a film “from the producers of LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE,” which smells of clear cut desperation.  Yet, the associations between the two  films are noticeable: Both are low-budget indie films; both have a quirky and eclectic tone; both have colorful, affable, but deeply flawed personalities that are hard to hate; both films were produced by Glenn Williamson; and both have Alan Arkin playing an cantankerous and sometimes foul tempered old geezer with a heart of gold.  Hell, both films have the word Sunshine in their bloody titles.  Shhessh. 

Aside from its obvious and not so obvious similarities to 2006’s LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (I film that I deeply admired), SUNSHINE CLEANING has a few things going for it in spades:  Firstly, it has a paring of two of the most attractive, appealing, and dependable young actresses working today in Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, both of whom would be reason enough to see just about any movie.  On top of that, I liked how SUNSHINE CLEANING treats its women characters that the two actresses respectively play as real flesh and blood personas and not just as exasperatingly idiosyncratic caricatures at service of the plot.  In tandem, Blunt and Adams find the wounded souls of their sibling roles and forge an undeniable chemistry that simmers with a hushed despair and melancholy.  These are two irrefutably natural screen actors that effectively know how to dial into their characters fragile emotional states to the point where their dilemmas and concerns have a real veracity; there is rarely a phoned-in moment whenever Blunt and Adams are on screen together. 

If there is a problem with the overall film then it would be that I never gained an overriding sense of what it was truly trying say.  That could be reflected by the fact that SUNSHINE CLEANING is a tremendously well-acted film in search of some narrative and thematic symmetry.  The film, much akin to LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, wants to tap into the peculiar comedy that arises out of its oftentimes-morbid situations while balancing that with heartfelt sentiment.  SUNSHINE CLEANING does not successful make the transition from light comedy to searing drama and, more often than not, you are kind of left wondering what the film's real goals are.  By the time it reaches a rather hastily defined and cobbled-together-at-the-last-minute conclusion, I was left feeling even more befuddled.  Is the film trying to be a eccentric and light comedy or is it supposed to be a dark expose on the traumatized sisters looking for self-respect or is it about women that want to empower themselves against social restraints that are placed on them?  The film certainly does not really know for sure: too much of the time SUNSHINE CLEANING wants to be light as a feather and cheery while yearning to explore the darker levels of personal tragedy.

A former high school cheerleading captain named Rose Lorkowski (Adams) is a thirty-something single mother that cleans houses to make end’s meat.  A decade and a half earlier, she was one of the more established and popular girls in school: women wanted to be her and boys simply wanted her.  Unfortunately for her, life took too many terrible detours and she is now forced to live a lonely existence of partaking in her demeaning job in order to support her somewhat troubled seven-year-old son, Oscar (Jason Spevack).  Oscar is a very peculiar boy…and one that is often in trouble at school because of his very odd behavior and habits.  His most recent troubling incident resulted primarily from what the principal described as a “licking” problem: Oscar simply likes to lick…well…everything and everyone.  Yuck. 

Rose not only has issues with her son, but she is also having a very naughty affair with her old high school sweetheart, Mac (Steve Zahn) who ended up marrying another woman, but he nonetheless still enjoys the odd motel rendezvous with Rose.  Realizing that she may need to put her son in a fancy and expensive private school that will hopefully curtail his eccentric and upsetting behavior, Rose decides to – at Mac’s idle suggestions – go into the very lucrative business of crime scene cleaning (one thing the film never really establishes is how such an apparently tiny town that the characters populate have so many murders, suicides, etc. that require such businesses so often, but I digress).  Realizing that she will certainly need some assistance, Rose recruits her slacker, down-on-her-luck, and frequently unemployed sister, Norah (Blunt) to start up her crime cleaning business, which they later dub “Sunshine Cleaning.”  Norah herself definitely needs to get out of the house more and do something with her life, mainly because she can’t seem to keep a job and also because she is still living at home with dear ol’ poppa, Joe (Allan Arkin, fantastic here, but nearly plagiarizing his performance from his Oscar winning work in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE).  Joe, it appears, seems to be a bit better adjusted than his daughters, but this widow undoubtedly has issues of his own as well. 

Aside from a few initial setbacks (not to mention that it appears that both of the sisters are a bit ill prepared at first with dealing with the gruesomely bloody crime sense) Norah and Rose become quite able-bodied at their new joint vocation.  Even better, the sisters also begin to develop a bit of a personal investment in their job in the form of “helping” the victims’ families during their time of loss while cleaning their homes of the vestiges of their loved ones’ murder or death.  This perhaps is a bit cathartic for the sisters, seeing as they have also had depressing memories of their mother’s own ghastly demise years ago when they were just children.  As a result, the priorities of Sunshine Cleaning extends well beyond just cleaning; the sisters hope to better themselves by being there for their clients as well.    

If there is one thing that SUNSHINE CLEANING gets right then it would be that it never plays out individual moments for cheap and disposable gross-out gags for sensationalistic comic relief.  The film does have laughs, mostly at the expense of the two bickering siblings while they try to learn the ropes of their thankless jobs.  I appreciated how the film treats their jobs as seriously as its characters do, and the film has a nice understated execution that never force-feeds its eccentric nature down the throats of its viewers.  The film is littered with highly dysfunctional personalities and it always finds a nice dichotomy between making us care for them while pitying them.  There is a stark intimacy with the portrayal of the sister’s story in SUNSHINE CLEANING that is refreshing: it always feels like we are witnessing real people with real pent up regrets and foibles. 

All of this is chiefly assisted, as stated earlier, by the wonderfully endearing performances by Adams and Blunt, who both tap into their characters deep hurts and aspirations.  Adams herself is on a serious role and looks poised to all but cement herself as the preeminent young actress working today (her resume auspiciously reflects such brilliant turns in JUNEBUG, ENCHANTED, and DOUBT, two of which netted her well deserved Oscar nominations, and her turn as Amelia Earhart in this summer's NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: BATTLE FOR THE SMITHSONIAN was infectiously sassy).  Blunt’s movie street cred is also on the rise and proof of that is how she is such a wonderfully realized, foul-mouthed and tough foil here to Adam’s brightly demeanored Rose.  Blunt is a luminous on-screen presence and is one of the very few screen bombshells that throws vanity out the window by de-glamorizing herself down to play moody and sullen bitches.  Blunt is a real fiery cauldron of snarky attitude in the film and few actresses have the chops to pull this off as effectively. 

The problem with SUNSHINE CLEANING is that the two outstanding lead performances are not enough to overcome its deficiencies.  The film can’t seem to concentrate on what its really trying to say about these characters, not to mention that the manner it wraps up their story seems borderline convenient and routine.  Furthermore, the film has many instances where some supporting characters seem curiously underwritten and ignored:  Rose’s lustful and adulterous fling with Zhan’s Mac is never developed as much as it should (Zhan, a very assured actor, does what he can with a rather perfunctory part).  There is also a subplot involving Mary Lynn Rajskub playing an emotionally tormented woman whose life crosses Norah’s that seems more like an afterthought than a fully realized subplot.  A supporting character - a one-armed hardware store owner that provides counseling and soul support for Rose - that is played sweetly and serenely by Clifton Collins, Jr.- is never given the prominence he deserves.  And then, yes, there is the curmudgeonly Alan Arkin playing a role of a grumpy, trash talking hustler/dreamer that he can play with relative ease.  Perhaps make that  with "too much relative ease," seeing as he is essentially duplicating a better performance from a startlingly similar character in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. 

It would be hard for me to label SUNSHINE CLEANING as a failure: At times its is a terrifically unaffected film nurtured by some textured and soulful performances and by the manner with which it paints these characters with dignity and humanity.  There are moments that are generally amusing in the film (such as when Rose and Norah try to dispose of a blood drenched mattress) and moments that are moderately moving (although some, like a concluding scene where one character is talking on a CB radio to a deceased love one, seems a bit phoned in).  For the most part, SUNSHINE CLEANING does not ostentatiously slum though its eccentricities, but there are too many times when it’s either played too dour or too cute and bubbly for its own good.  Ultimately, the film just does not have a lasting enough impact, which is a minor shame seeing as it’s one that gratifies us with the likes of both Emily Blunt and Amy Adams.  They are undeniably fetching and radiant here, but, alas, they belong in a more substantial film.

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