Tidy ‘Sunshine Cleaning’ a bit off the wall
Blood and guts, that’s what “Sunshine Cleaning” is all about, as it effectively melds family matters and brain splatter into a surprisingly appetizing mix.
Still, it’s hard to escape the feeling that it’s a sitcom masquerading as a movie, a sort of “CSI: Albuquerque,” only instead of investigating crime scenes the two sisters at the heart of this jocular tale clean them.
They also tidy up the aftermath of suicides and my personal favorite, decomps, the industry term for decomposing bodies.
The irony, as you might expect, is that while they may know how to extract stubborn brain chunks from tight crevices, they can’t remove the stains on their personal lives.
Now, that will take some work, but if anyone can do it, it’s Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, a couple of exceedingly smart actresses possessing the charm and the range to sell such a contrivance. They play Rose and Norah Lorkowski, disparate siblings whose only common trait is their ability to underachieve.
Adams draws the showier part as Rose, the former high school cheerleader whose life is anything but cheery, especially when it comes to the men in her life. Her dad (Alan Arkin) is obsessed with get-rich-quick schemes, her young son (Jason Spevack) is a regular visitor to the principal’s office and her lover (Steve Zahn) is a married cop with no intention of unholstering his wife.
Blunt is the sis who really gets to you, though, with her deeply affecting portrayal of Norah, a life-long screw-up who can’t keep a job or her sanity, as she futilely tries to hide her vulnerability behind a riot grrrl facade. Blunt, who stole her every scene as the office assistant from hell in “The Devil Wears Prada,” does the same here flashing attitude and charm.
In fact, she’s almost too good for such a piffle of a movie, one that grunts and grinds under the strain of too many creaky plot points devised by first-time screenwriter Megan Holley.
Other than the fascinating insights she offers on the world of biohazard removal (the fancy name for cleaning up after dead bodies), the film has nothing new to say about family dysfunction.
Adams and Blunt do their best to make it fresh, however, as Rose enlists a reluctant Norah into a surefire path to success dusting up crime scenes in and around their hometown of Albuquerque.
They call it Sunshine Cleaning and sadly, business is booming. And here is where the film, directed by Christina Jeffs (“Sylvia”), excels, creating a genuine feeling of sorrow for the people who have died, either at their own hand or another’s.
The sisters are not just cleaning up spaces; they’re cleaning up lives and developing a connection to both the deceased and their survivors. It’s quite touching, but the film goes a tad overboard with a subplot about Norah obsessing over one client’s estranged daughter, played by “24’s” Mary Lynn Rajskub.
You wish that time had been devoted to the far more interesting relationship between Rose and Norah, whom Rose practically raised after their mother’s death many years ago. And what makes it interesting is the ability of Adams and Blunt to be so thoroughly convincing as sisters in the throes of a love-hate relationship.
Neither, unfortunately, is served well by the bits of quirky comedy that feel as if they were lifted straight out of that other “Sunshine” movie starring Arkin as an impish grandpa.
Just because the same people produced “Sunshine Cleaning” and “Little Miss Sunshine” it doesn’t mean the films needed to share a similar tone and sensibility. This one needed to be much grittier, playing up the human drama and downsizing the glibness.
Yet, like the many bloody crime scenes we’re made privy to, it’s such an intriguing mess, you cannot look away. And why would you want to when you have two gorgeous women around to mop up the flaws with spotless performances that make “Sunshine Cleaning” pretty close to neat.
"Sunshine Cleaning" (R for language, disturbing images, some sexuality and drug use.) Cast includes Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Alan Arkin, Steve Zahn, Mary Lynn Rajskub and Jason Spevack. Directed by Christina Jeffs.
Al Alexander may be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.