You’d be hard pressed to actively dislike Sunshine Cleaning. It stars two of the most affable leads working in cinema today, Amy Adams and Emily Blunt. Collectively, the power of their adorability will instantly coat puppy-dogs with chocolate sprinkles and cute little babies with flower petals. The story is relatively breezy, taking a few dips into sob territory, but never really allows anything to get brutally melancholy. And that’s my biggest issue with the film. Nothing is allowed to develop beyond a purely cursory inspection. While this allows the film to avoid falling down the cliche hole, it also sucks out all the potential for outrageous glee and mayhem. There are numerous opportunities for Sunshine Cleaning to explode into a vicious dark comedy or even a sinister dramedy. Instead, it’s content to merely float along merrily like a happy little leaf on a river. And I hate that fucking leaf.
The film opens with a businessman going into a sporting goods store and asking to inspect a shotgun, which he then loads with a shell from his pocket and commits suicide. Two crime scene cleaning techs then exchange innocuous gallows humor, marveling at how much splatter the man got over everything. The salesman, his face jelly-smeared with the suicide’s cobain-stain, calmly answers questions from the police. It’s a pretty sinister scene, and I expected the rest of Sunshine Cleaning to have this savage wit and malevolent small town cruelty. Instead, it felt more like Lars and the Real Girl if the entire movie was spent waiting for the arrival of the doll.
Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams) spends her day cleaning the homes of the girls who envied her head-cheerleading, quarterback-diddling status back in high school. They’re all zaftig baby factories, dashing from day care to day spa in SUVs, throwing showers and casserole parties while Rose makes their whites whiter. Rose has never gone beyond the halcyon days of high school, which ends up leaving her like a wilted prom corsage. She’s still porking the quarterback (Steve Zahn), only now he’s a married cop and she’s meeting up in seedy motels for brief trysts in fancy underpants. Her sister Norah (Emily Blunt) can’t hold a job and occasionally babysits Rose’s son Oscar (Jason Spevack). She cool aunts him full of kettle corn and horrific tales of the lobster man. Norah lives with their father Joe (Alan Arkin), an eternal schillmeister who’s looking for that next get rich quick scheme that’ll save the day. Mac the cop suggests to Rose instead of pursuing her real estate license (number four on the housefrau escape hatch behind interior decorator, caterer, and independent beauty consultant) she should use her cleaning expertise to spruce up crime scenes.
That’s pretty much the film. I appreciate the fact that Christine Jeffs and writer Megan Holley don’t force quirk down our throats with a Sunny D chaser, but rather let the simple story play out. It doesn’t need to be more complex than that, but I only wish it had decided to capitalize on just one of the interesting side threads it develops. Just as drama is about to ratchet up, either Blunt or more frequently Adams’, doe-glorious eyes pool with tears and we move to the next scene. Rose is confronted by Mac’s pregnant wife in a gas-station convenience store, but instead of this being implemented cleverly in a later baby-shower scene, or as a layer to her relationship to Mac, Amy cries, and it’s never brought up again. Norah tracks down the daughter of one of the crime scene victims (Mary Lynn Rajskub), to the point of sparking a lesbian kiss, but the final blowup upon discovering their entire friendship has been based on a lie is about as exciting as a fireworks display consisting of a weird neighbor kid dancing in the street in the daytime clutching four sparklers.
Still, it’s not that this necessarily makes Sunshine Cleaning a terrible movie. It feels like a really exemplary student film. The acting’s fantastic. Even trying to play a plain Jane, Amy Adams sparkles and shines. She’s like goddamn sunshine, people. Just bask in her warmth and count yourself lucky it’s not snowing. Emily Blunt impressed me with her ability to play ingenue punk, when I thought she was relegated to a lifetime of playing Austen heroin-chic. The supporting cast killed as well. Alan Arkin is going to charmingly anger his way through Alzheimer’s until they just give him the Oscar or make him battle Peter O’Toole to the death for it. Clifton Collins, Jr. — who played killer Perry Smith in Capote and the gay hitman Frankie Flowers in Traffic — is virtually unrecognizable as the timid one-armed shopkeep Winston. Dude’s a chameleon and I look forward to the many roles this film will garner him.
All in all, you’ll like Sunshine Cleaning. I just wanted it to be better. They had all the ingredients to make a three-tier wedding cake, but instead decided on chocolate chip cookies. There’s nothing wrong with chocolate chip cookies, but I was told there would be cake.
Brian Prisco lives in a pina down by the mer-port of Burbank, by way of the cheesesteak-laden arteries of Philadelphia. Any and all grumblings can be directed to priscogospel at hotmail dot com.