Thursday, April 2, 2009

Sunshine Cleaning: A bit smudged

Sunshine Cleaning (2008) • View trailer for Sunshine Cleaning
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, sexual content, brief drug use and disturbing images
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.2.09
Buy DVD: Sunshine Cleaning • Buy Blu-Ray: Sunshine Cleaning [Blu-ray]

Some films work as a total viewing and storytelling experience; others are more memorable for their individual moments.

Sunshine Cleaning seems deliberately promoted to capitalize on the earlier success of Little Miss Sunshine, also co-produced by Peter Saraf and Marc Turtletaub. Additionally, actor Alan Arkin is present in both films  playing somewhat the same type of role  and one cannot help noticing the similar titles, as well.
Rose (Amy Adams) and her son, Oscar (Jason Spevack, center), are pleased to
find a new friend in Winston (Clifton Collins Jr.), who runs a biohazard
supply store ... and has a surprisingly gentle hobby.

Unfortunately, despite an invitingly quirky approach and a can't-miss premise certain to attract curious viewers, first-time screenwriter Megan Holley's script for Sunshine Cleaning has a much darker tone than Little Miss Sunshine. I'm not at all persuaded that the characters here will be OK, if only with themselves, as I was at the end of Little Miss Sunshine.

And, given some of the depressing things happening to these people, Sunshine Cleaning is unlikely to enjoy the repeat business necessary to make a breakout hit these days.

More to the point, this film is billed as a comedy. That simply isn't true.

All that said, though, it's impossible to take our eyes off stars Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, both of whom fully inhabit their parts as blue-collar sisters trying to get by in contemporary Albuquerque.

Adams, in particular, is luminescent. She conveys all the shattered hopes and dreams of a single parent forced into drudge work just to get by: never more than one crisis away from financial ruin, and obliged to settle for love in all the wrong places. Director Christine Jeffs frequently drags the camera right into Adams' face, and the actress never shirks from the harshly probing lens; we see sorrow over what might have been, and grim resignation over what's never to be, unsuccessfully masked by a waning attempt at good spirits that long ago began to fray around the edges.

Adams plays Rose Lorkowski, once the local high school cheerleading captain who dated the quarterback, and now left with little beyond the knowledge that she's very, very good at getting guys to notice her ... but very, very bad at keeping them.

In this fashion, through backstory details we need not worry about, Rose wound up with young Oscar (Jason Spevack), a mildly unusual little boy whose behavior isn't entirely socially acceptable. Oscar really isn't guilty of anything beyond reasonable curiosity and a tendency to act out  his newest habit is licking things (and people)  but the local school has had enough: They want him medicated. Or gone.

Rose, finding the former suggestion an abomination, opts for the latter. But private schools are expensive, and one look at her scruffy apartment tells us everything we need to know about the financial picture.

Her personal life isn't much better. She's still sleeping with her high school sweetheart, Mac (Steve Zahn), despite the fact that he's married. These scenes are painfully difficult to watch, mostly for their honesty; Mac doesn't seem to be a bad guy, and he clearly cares for Rose, but he's also obviously never going to get divorced.

For her part, Rose knows that this ongoing affair is unhealthy, but she craves the warmth too much to abandon it.

But Mac does serve an unexpected purpose: He works as a cop, and he mentions, during casual pillow talk, that the crews brought in to sanitize crime scenes make respectable salaries. Upon further investigation, Rose discovers that biohazard removal is something of a growth industry (a rather disquieting thought that I don't doubt for a moment).

Needing a partner, Rose more or less browbeats younger sister Norah (Blunt) into signing on.

If Rose still struggles vainly for a piece of the American dream, Norah gave up the battle long ago. Favoring dark clothes, darker eye shadow and prominent tattoos, she does little but party hearty and get high. We watch her blow off a waitressing job as the film opens, and Blunt radiates appropriate hostility: This is a woman with little patience and plenty of anger.

Norah still lives at home with their father, Joe (Arkin), a salesman with a lifelong history of ill-fated get-rich-quick schemes. He's currently trying to move designer caramel corn. He's soon to try frozen shrimp.

This family unit is oddly prickly, with everybody at arm's length. They talk to each other, move around each other, as if trying not to step on broken glass. Yes, there's a reason for this behavior, and it further weighs down a story that's already pretty dour.

Rose, obviously believing that this new job might be her last best chance, attacks it with the pluck of a Girl Scout. These early scenes are played for laughs, although they're uncomfortable laughs; Rose and Norah, having not the slightest notion of what they're getting into, are lucky enough to be confronted, early on, by no more than bad smells and bloodstains. Adams and Blunt's nervous, horrified expressions are priceless.

An encounter with a soiled mattress is one of the film's high points: memorable enough to have become the film's signature promotional image.

Easy comedy aside, the tone changes as Rose insists on learning how to do the job properly. To this end, she and Norah get help from Winston (Clifton Collins Jr.), an amiable fellow who runs a biohazard removal supply store and  clearly surprising even himself  takes the young women under his wing. Something flickers when Rose and Winston make eye contact.

These scenes  the blossoming dynamic between Winston and Rose  also feel impressively authentic: a note of brightness and hope in an otherwise dispirited universe. Collins and Adams radiate the cautious uncertainty that accompanies all first impressions: neither individual wanting to be caught doing anything as blatant as flirting, but both probably not adverse to the idea.

And, as the sisters' new business endeavor claws its way up the ladder of recognition, something unexpected happens.

Norah gets hit first, when she cannot simply throw out a dead woman's personal belongings, particularly a tiny stack of photos: a girl aging, over time, into a young woman. Norah tracks down the now-grown woman, Lynn (Mary Lynn Rajskub, well recognized from TV's 24), and  uncertain about what to do next  befriends her. Lynn, another lonely soul, seems willing.

Rose then finds her sympathy aroused when she sits with the elderly widow of a suicide victim. Again, this is an intensely raw moment, brought to vivid life by Adams' expressive features. It also proves to be an epiphany, as Rose realizes that she and Norah aren't merely doing a job, but helping people  the survivors of a terrible moment  transition to the next phase of their lives.

Undeniably poetic: a lump-in-throat revelation.

Trouble is, the gentle authenticity of such scenes  and those between Rose and Winston, or Norah and Lynn  are undercut by other times when Sunshine Cleaning devolves into "just a movie." Joe is little more than cliché and calculated artifice: clearly an "acting job," and the sort of crusty-ol'-coot part that Arkin has phoned in dozens of times before (notably in Little Miss Sunshine).

And although the "issues" with young Oscar force Rose into the decision that fuels this story, in many other respects the boy is little more than an accessory: something often left in somebody else's care. I wish Adams could have been allowed to share more tender scenes with young Spevack, and I wish Rose could be seen to spend more time trying to figure out a solution to her son's schooling crisis; that crucial issue remains ignored until a quick, unconvincing fairy-tale moment right at the end of the film.

That's a rather serious problem: Are we intended to accept Rose as a loving mother? She doesn't wear that badge very convincingly.

Sunshine Cleaning, as a result, is a case where the journey isn't nearly as important  or interesting  as the stops along the way. Considerable truths are revealed during those stops: moments that speak to the human condition. Embracing this film requires a viewer to be content with such interludes, rather than expecting that the destination  the place these characters wind up  will be satisfying.

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