A film review by Craig J. Koban September 8, 2009
2009, R, 102 mins.
2009, R, 102 mins.
Rose: Amy Adams / Norah: Emily Blunt / Joe: Alan Arkin /
Oscar: Jason Spevack / Mac: Steve Zahn
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
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
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.
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
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.