Eugene Weekly : Movies : 4.2.09


Blood Everywhere
Somebody has to mop it up
by Molly Templeton

SUNSHINE CLEANING: Directed by Christine Jeffs. Written by Megan Holley. Cinematography, John Hoon. Editor, Heather Persons. Starring Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Alan Arkin, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Jason Spevack and Steve Zahn. Overture Films, 2009. R. 91 min.

Amy Adams and Emily Blunt in Sunshine Cleaning

Somewhere, tangled up in the contrivances and the force-fed quirks, there’s a heart to Sunshine Cleaning. You just have to ignore so much to get at it. You have to ignore the color-coding of redheaded Amy Adams as Rose Lorkowski, the bright-eyed, responsible sister, and Emily Blunt as black-clad, eyeliner-abusing Norah, the younger, sulkier Lorkowski. You have to ignore the convenience of Rose’s affair with a cop (Steve Zahn) who just happens to put it into her head that she could make more money doing crime-scene cleanup than she does as a maid. You have to ignore the familiar feel of Alan Arkin’s role as the zany, irresponsible Lorkowski father, and the corny bit where someone uses a CB radio to talk to a dead relative. And you have to ignore the sheer improbability of the Southwestern small-town setting having so many bloody messes to clean up in the first place. 

But what’s worth paying attention to, in Christine Jeffs’ (Sylvia) film, is the relationship between Rose and Norah, and the one that briefly forms between Rose and Lynn (Mary Lynn Rajskub, from 24), whose tentative connection Sunshine doesn’t define or confirm. The film’s major plot points come as expected, but in the quieter, less attention-grabbing moments, the sisters’ lives spin out as one decades-long story of grief never recovered from. Thankfully, they don’t find closure or healing in a crime scene, but in the process of working together and, sometimes, screwing up (though Norah’s major mistake feels as contrived as the whole crime-scene business does in the first place). Sunshine can be convincing about the relationships between its characters, but it falls to bits where tone is concerned. At its best, there’s the awkward, hopeful scene when Norah tries to open up to Lynn but just can’t seem to make herself clear; at its worst, it turns perky and life-affirming, turning the deaths of (mostly) unseen strangers into something to bolster Rose’s self-worth. For a woman cleaning up the most macabre messes, Rose has absolutely no darkness in her sense of humor.

Still, this would be a much less watchable film were it not for the considerable, restrained talents of Adams and Blunt and, in a lesser part, Clifton Collins Jr. as Winston, a store clerk whose mellow, kind demeanor reminds Rose that there are more possibilities in life than those she’s been considering. (He also reminds her of various laws and requirements for her new business, but conveniently, nothing bad ever comes of her minor lawbreaking.) Norah and Rose have spent too long with each other and with their own limitations; they’ve got to find new strength when forced to look outward and deal with the people their cleaning business brings into their lives. It’s not the most original notion, but they play it for all its worth.

Sunshine Cleaning opens Friday, April 3, at the Bijou.