Amy Adams plays Rose, who was the lead cheerleader in high school, but now—just a blink of the eye later—she feels like she’s reached a dead end. She’s the single mother of an elementary-school boy, and she struggles to make ends meet by cleaning expensive houses. At a reunion of classmates, she’s stunned and embarrassed to discover that her former peers are the sort of people who live in those McMansions.
Rose is having an affair with a married cop (Steve Zahn) who mentions one day that people get paid a pretty penny to clean up crime scenes. The job is nasty, but Rose figures that with some help from her sister Norah (Emily Blunt), she can build a lucrative business of her own with leads from her beau. It’s her big break.
Early in the film, the ugliness of the work, like clearing blood from tile and removing brain bits from a bathtub, generates some funny slapstick, but beneath the humor is an insensitivity and weirdness that a couple of cute performances can’t fully cover. It looks like a flaw in the film—a heartwarming comedy about horrible death?—until the characters’ own naiveté comes to the foreground, at which point the film’s approach looks more like patience than simplistic optimism. It is disturbing. And the women quickly discover that venturing into these waters means not only mastering the discipline’s technical details (how to dispose of a stained mattress, for example) but also confronting elements of their own lives. Even someone who has lived through tragedy likely hasn’t seen the side of it where messes are cleaned up and normal life must resume because it’s in the job description.
The film has a satisfyingly dramatic trunk, which makes it far more serious than Little Miss Sunshine, the hit film from the same producers. Perfectly cast, once again, is Amy Adams. She’s impeccable from beginning to end, and her cheerful moxie is proving a valuable commodity in film after film, partly because it’s deceptive. In Doubt, her character’s apparent innocence—and her desire to live in an innocent world—is a pivotal part of the drama, and it’s her character’s bouncy gumption that gives Sunshine Cleaning its momentum, eventually giving way to a well of emotion. The catharsis in the film’s conclusion is predictable, but Adams is wonderful in both moods, slipping effortlessly between them.
The rest of the actors are nearly as good, but the film around them is pretty shaggy. Alan Arkin plays Rose’s father, a rough-edged grandpa who seems lifted wholesale from Little Miss Sunshine. The film uses him in comedic vignettes that are fun to watch, but his cyclical appearances give the film the structure of a TV show, where a jokey subplot is intercut with the main story to fill out an episode or carry minor characters from week to week. In a film, these periodic injections feel perfunctory and inelegant, and the same approach is largely responsible for the underdeveloped nature of Blunt’s character. She has an attitude, a type and an aborted subplot, but little else.
There’s a more interesting film somewhere inside this story, and director Christine Jeffs and first-time screenwriter Megan Holley intermittently find it, but as a whole, Sunshine Cleaning feels like it was pressed into a mold it doesn’t really fit. Critics compare the film to Little Miss Sunshine for obvious reasons—the title, the producers, the grandfather—but the heart of the film is in another world.
Release Date: March 13 (limited)
Director: Christine Jeffs
Writer: Megan Holley
Cinematographer: John Toon
Starring: Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Alan Arkin
Studio/Run Time: Overture, 92 mins.
First-rate acting in second-rate Little Miss Sunshine
Sunshine Cleaning was shot in early 2007 by an experienced director working with a strong, recognizable cast, but it’s just now arriving in theaters. Often the biggest difficulty independent filmmakers face isn’t getting a film made, but getting it in front of an audience.