Sunday, March 29, 2009

Catching up with "Sunshine Cleaning"

"Sunshine Cleaning" is that extreme rarity in Hollywood -- a mainstream movie directed by a woman (Christine Jeffs) from a screenplay written by a woman (Megan Holley).

Neither Jeffs or Holley were involved in "Little Miss Sunshine," but the producers are the same, as the advertising campaign for "Sunshine Cleaning" is quick to remind you. There's no road trip in the new movie, but thematically the two movies are blood siblings. They're about low-middle class families with troubled children and beat-down adults who yearn for something better, particularly from their professional lives.

Both movies even share Alan Arkin as the off-kilter but heartwarming grandfather -- although he gets to live through this movie.

The main character is Rose, played by Amy Adams, a former high school queen who's now stuck cleaning the houses of the people she formerly lorded over. She's got a smart but troublesome 7-year-old (Jason Spevak) whose school wants to either put him on medication, or expel him. Her vaguely punk sister Norah (Emily Blunt, one of the few Brits who can do a near-perfect American accent) skips between waitressing jobs while living with their dad, who is retirement age but is constantly working half-baked business deals with candy popcorn and consignment shrimp.

Rose never got hitched to the captain of the football team, but she is sleeping with him -- even though he's a married cop with one kid and another on the way. He does provide her the tip that the crews who clean up the nasty remains of crime scenes get paid big bucks for wiping up blood and bits of brain.

Soon Rose and Norah are tag-teaming as they visit the gruesome scene or murders and suicides wearing hazmat suits and wielding sponges. Both see it as a business opportunity, but it becomes something more to them. Rose, who's perpetually mortified by her fall from social grace, becomes a proud business owner who revels in the slight, but intimate way they share the last moments of people's lives. And Norah rescues some photos and personal belongings of a woman who killed herself, intending to give it to her daughter, but ends up befriending her instead.

"Sunshine Cleaning" is a slow-moving affair intended for grown-ups with the patience to enjoy the way the film languidly moves between drama and comedy, pathos and silliness. The plot is not a forced journey between point A and B, but rides a current that is content to get caught in eddies, and rush over rapids as the film finds its own pace.

It does strive at times to be quirky for the sake of quirkiness -- for example, the little boy using the CB radio in his mother's work van to ask questions of the heavens, which go unanswered. These moments break away from the natural mood of the characters, forcing them to do things they probably wouldn't do.

I'm not sure if "Sunshine Cleaning" is a movie that has really figured itself out. It's got some interesting themes and the acting is uniformly splendid -- Adams in particular -- but I get the sense it was built upon a series of ideas that never quite interlock with each other. Its pieces are often wonderful, but don't combine to produce a fully-formed whole. Still, it's a movie that sophisticated film goers won't want to miss.

3 stars out of four

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