Posted on Friday, March 13th, 2009 by David Chen
What happens to crime scenes after the dead bodies have been taken to the morgue and the detectives have gone home? How do the business owners, homeowners, and regular, everyday people carry on with their lives after they’ve been touched by gruesomeness and tragedy? Before any mourning or coping can take place, step one is to hire someone to clean up the mess. Christine Jeffs’ Sunshine Cleaning tries to take us behind the lives of one woman’s quest to clean up in places where the unspeakable has happened. But does it deliver us a satisfying and darkly comic tale of crime scene sanitation?
Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams) is a single mother who is under way too much stress. Her job as a maid for a cleaning company leaves her in a constant state of self-loathing. Her son, Oscar (Jason Spevack), can’t stay out of trouble in school. Her sister, Norah (Emily Blunt) can’t hold down a steady job and has a tough relationship with their father Joe (Alan Arkin). Meanwhile, Mac, the married man she’s having an affair with (Steve Zahn), can’t seem to give her the emotional satisfaction she desires. When Oscar’s latest antics land him in trouble with the school principal, Rose resolves to figure out a way to put Oscar through private school rather than see him relegated to a program for “special” kids. She enlists the help of Mac to hook her and Norah up with some lucrative crime scene cleaning gigs. As one gig leads to another, she begins to realize the profit potential for the entire enterprise, leading her to start her own company, Sunshine Cleaning.
There’s a lot of promise in the premise for Sunshine Cleaning. Certainly, a great deal of dark comedy can be mined from the circumstances, and the film presents a decent slate of quirky characters (e.g. the one-armed vacuum salesman, the cranky old man who has a shrimp-selling scheme) through whom it can portray satisfying character arcs. Sadly, Sunshine Cleaning defies convention, seemingly just for the sake of it. It never decides what kind of film it wants to be and ends up a narrative mess.
Let’s start with the impetus for the creation of the Sunshine Cleaning company in the first place: Oscar’s school trouble. We are led to believe that Rose’s financial situation is rather dire, and that Sunshine Cleaning spawns out of necessity. But, except for a brief shot of Rose filling out a school application later in the film, this plotline never resurfaces, sapping the movie of some much-needed narrative tension (e.g. “Will Rose be able to put together the business in time to help her son?”). Theoretically, we are meant to understand that Rose ends up enjoying the work for its own sake, but aside from one brief encounter between Rose and one of her clients’ widows, this thread also fails to satisfyingly come to fruition. While the film starts off with the potential to have some compelling Six Feet Under-caliber drama, that potential is never fulfilled.
About thirty minutes into the film, I thought I finally grasped what the film was trying to do, providing us with three parallel storylines: Rose’s quest to make Sunshine Cleaning successful, Norah’s mission to track down one of her clients’ daughters, and Joe’s bizarre shrimp business. But the film veers wildly between these three plotlines and struggles to find a balance that makes us care about each of the characters and their situational outcomes. Effective emotional moments fail to resonate because they lack any narrative direction. And the dialogue meant to establish some of the relationships (e.g. the one between Norah and Lynn, the latter of whom is played by Mary Lynn Rajskub) comes off as clunky, amateurish, and implausible.
None of this can be laid at the door of the director, Christine Jeffs, who valiantly manages to make the most out of scene after scene (and to a large extent, succeeds). The problem is solely with first-time screenwriter Megan Holley’s script. Characters and situations drift haphazardly in and out of the film as needed for the scene at hand, and the film’s handling of one crucial past tragic event in Rose and Norah’s life is as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face.
The one element that single-handedly saves this film from the abyss is a tremendous performance by Amy Adams. Continuing to prove that she is one of the best actresses of our generation, Adams’ Rose is utterly convincing as she struggles with deep issues of self-confidence. Rose is by turns pitiful, courageous, and tender, and is one of the few people in this film that feels like a fully-formed emotional being. Adams makes you feel every ounce of Rose’s wasted potential and profound shame at her station in life. It’s a testament to Adams’ skills that despite Rose’s considerable problems, you can’t help but fall in love with her.
As a side note, I’m not terribly familiar with Emily Blunt’s work, but I thought she was strangely magnetic as the family’s black sheep. She portrays Norah with just the right amount of indifference, but enough tenderness to make you care (although to be fair, the way her storyline was resolved left me with a big “WTF?”)
About two-thirds of the way through the film, Adams delivers a short monologue, explaining her motivation for (and her satisfaction derived from) running Sunshine Cleaning. “We come into people’s lives when they’ve experienced something profound,” she says. “And we help. In some small way, we help.” Unfortunately, Sunshine Cleaning never really makes us feel Adams’ satisfaction at doing her job; the monologue is not earned. In fact, were it not for the fine work of Adams, the film’s messy storytelling would barely have the ability to make us feel anything but frustration.
/Film Rating: 6.5 out of 10
Discuss: What did you think of Sunshine Cleaning?