'Sunshine' lands on crime scenes, struggles
Can you blame the marketing department for trying to sell "Sunshine Cleaning" as the next "Little Miss Sunshine"? Not only are the titles similar, but so's the American Southwestern setting, and for added insurance here's Alan Arkin playing yet another foxy grandpa. We could use a plucky indie comedy at the moment, but that doesn't excuse an ad campaign that positions "Cleaning" as a romp.
Just so you know: The movie opens with a man walking into a sporting goods store, loading a shotgun, and blowing his head off. Things don't exactly lighten up after that, either.
Have your expectations been adjusted? Good. What "Sunshine Cleaning" is is an intelligent, often touching, sometimes pedestrian drama about two Albuquerque sisters struggling to keep afloat in a dead-end economy, a subject that has rather more relevance now than when the film first surfaced at Sundance in January 2008. It's an honest little movie, well written by Megan Holley, well directed by Christine Jeffs, and very well played by Amy Adams and Emily Blunt as the sisters. The correct reference points are sibling sagas like "The Savages" and "You Can Count on Me," even if "Sunshine Cleaning" never rises to their piercing intensity.
Adams is cast as the good sister, more or less: Rose Lorkowski, a former high-school beauty queen trying desperately hard not to wilt into early middle age. She has a young son, Oscar (Jason Spevack), by a long-gone father, is carrying on an affair with her ex-boyfriend, now a married cop (Steve Zahn), and cleans the houses of the girls she used to snub. Never has Adams's insistent smile seemed so in danger of cracking right off her face.
Financially up against the wall - Oscar needs special schooling - Rose hears there's big money to be had in cleaning up crime scenes such as the film's opening suicide. She enlists her unemployed younger sister Norah (Blunt) and sets up shop, oblivious to state biohazard-disposal regulations and other pesky details. What comedy there is in "Sunshine Cleaning" - and it's there - is in the hollow laughter of a born optimist like Rose confronting the finality of a blood-soaked mattress.
The movie works best as a dueling character study of two siblings, each in her own way trying to move beyond a family tragedy in their past. Blunt's Norah is so angry at the world that she's immobilized - she'd be Goth if she had the energy - but the discovery of a victim's personal effects sets her on the track of the woman's daughter (Mary Lynn Rajskub), who mistakes Norah's intentions in scenes that are subtle, unexplicit, yet powerfully erotic.
Rajskub does terrific small-scale work here, as does Clifton Collins Jr. ("Capote") as the gentle one-armed cleaning-store proprietor Rose flirts with. I'd like to say the same for Arkin, but as the girls' father - a rascally failed salesman of everything from pretzels to raw shrimp - he's coasting on the tailwinds of his "Little Miss Sunshine" role. In his defense, the part's thinly written.
A larger problem is that Adams makes her character such a natural go-getter that it's hard to buy her as one of life's losers; Rose is a successful franchise operator if ever I saw one. That may be more a matter of miscasting than mis-playing, since Adams also conveys the exhaustion of a clever blue-collar woman running out of options. Everyone in "Sunshine Cleaning" is dealing with fallen expectations, and life has played no one fair. The movie's about the grace needed to face up to that and move on, and it possesses just enough grace of its own to seem a tonic in tough times.