Friday, March 27, 2009

Sunshine Cleaning (***)

Directed by Christine Jeffs


Sunshine Cleaning has been heavily touted in its previews as "from the producers of 'Little Miss Sunshine'". It's usually the phrase in the largest font on the poster. When you have a film starring Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, and Alan Arkin, wouldn't that be the thing you'd want to push the most? In the process of the cross-marketing, Sunshine Cleaning the film ends up spinning into a bit of an identity crisis. Luckily, the film's stellar cast keeps it afloat.

Rose (Adams) was the head cheerleader and one of the more popular girls in high school once upon a time. These days, she's a single mother, who works as a maid for a cleaning service for luxury homes. The father of her son, Mac (Steve Zahn), was her boyfriend in high school and still sees her for occasional late-night action, but is married to another woman and can only see her in secret. Raising her son, Oscar (Jason Spevack), proves difficult when his intuitiveness gets him kicked out of numerous public schools.

Rose's sister Nora (Blunt) is almost as much of a headcase. A dedicated underachiever, Nora loses her job as a fast food waitress because of ineptitude and lateness. She lives with her father Joe (Arkin), who raised both girls by himself, and in his old age, is only interested in two things: creating get-rich-quick schemes and bonding with Oscar. When Rose decides that she needs to place Oscar into a good private school, she has to come up with a good enough job that will help her afford it.

Since Mac is a homocide detective, he tips Rose off on a business proposition: after gruesome death scenes, there are frequently cleaning crews who come and wipe up the bloody mess--and they get paid handsomely to do so. Carrying Nora along as her accomplice, Rose creates 'Sunshine Cleaing', a "biohazard removal and cleaning service". Rose and Nora are a pretty commonplace, dysfunctional pair of sisters, but find themselves quite successful in their underground business, even effecting the lives of some of their clients along the way.

The story of Sunshine Cleaning wallows quite a bit in the melodramatic, and it certainly doesn't give its material the darkness I think it deserves, but it does accomplish its goal: which is to make these tortured souls seem sympathetic. I don't think I've seen many films that are as well-casted as this one is. Along with Adams, Blunt, Zahn, and Arkin, there are wonderfully subdued supporting performances from Mary-Lynn Rajskub and Clifton Collins Jr. Both are splendid character performers, and both deliver some beautiful work here.

The film was directed by Christine Jeffs, a New Zealand filmmaker, who's most famous credit in the US is probably 2003's Sylvia. Those familiar with her earlier work know that this is a bit of a step-out for her, doing a film that is genuinely American, with a mostly American cast (Blunt is a pure Englishwoman). I won't discount her work here, because I genuinely enjoyed the film, but it still fries my brain trying to understand why a director who seems to understand dark material couldn't find the deeper levels in this film.

But none of that matters because the chemistry between Adams and Blunt is so dynamic. For Blunt, this is just another in a string of roles that has made her an American film star. She has glammor and beauty, but also sports just enough edge to break out of the mold. Even in this seemingly stuffy character, she makes something of it. As for Adams, this is her first non-naive, non-princess character. Always great at playing the angel, Adams is now asked to play a screw-up, and though that fallacy is sometimes hard to swallow, the sincerity of Adams helps push it through.

Sunshine Cleaning has been creeping in and out of limited theaters since Mar. 13th, and is actually a holdover from 2008. Like I said, it's being promoted as a film filled with indie quirk, like the Juno of 2009. I don't know how much of that illusion holds pat, with it's plot not necessarily leaning toward a feel-good aura. I really enjoyed the performances in this film, and cared greatly about what happened to the characters in the end, but I just wished they'd gone for more War of the Roses in tone, rather than Little Miss Sunshine.

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