Movie Review
Sunshine Cleaning
Sunshine Cleaning poster
By Craig Younkin     Published April 1, 2009
US Release: March 13, 2009

Directed by: Christine Jeffs
Starring: Amy Adams , Emily Blunt , Alan Arkin , Steve Zahn

R language, disturbing images, some sexuality and drug use.
Running Time: 102 minutes
Domestic Box Office: $12,055,108
It can be very funny and also a downer at times but what keeps things fairly level are the two fantastic performances from Amy Adams and Emily Blunt.
“Sunshine Cleaning” is an odd mix of gross-out comedy and melodramatic family drama, possibly why it’s being compared to its producers' first film “Little Miss Sunshine.” The other reason might be that Alan Arkin is in it. But if the goal was to capture all of the sweet gooey fun of “Little Miss," then “Cleaning” comes up a couple inches short. This flick from director Christine Jeffs and screenwriter Megan Holley is less about being cute or sweet and more about how a person’s death can shape our lives. It can be very funny at times and also a downer at times but what keeps things fairly level are the two fantastic performances coming from Amy Adams and Emily Blunt.

They play sisters Rose (Adams) and Norah (Blunt). Rose was once a high school cheerleader dating the star quarterback, but now wonders what happened to her life. A single mother forced to work as a maid to support herself and her young son (Jason Spevack), Rose clings to what’s left of the good in her life by being the mistress to the former high school quarterback (Steve Zahn) and hoping that one day she has enough money to get her real estate license. Norah is the younger sister, still living at home with dad (Alan Arkin) and too irresponsible to even hold on to a waitressing job. Desperately in need of money, the two hear about the gross yet apparently lucrative business of bio-hazard cleanup and before you know it they’re the Martha Stewarts of murder/suicide aftermath.

It’s a funny premise and you can just imagine the morbid and disgusting fun the movie can have with blood, body excretions, horrible smells and other sloppy situations one might encounter with dead-body mess. A scene where Rose and Norah are carrying a mattress is gross-out humor at its funniest. Holley likes these things but doesn’t revel in them. She wants to add some heart as well and succeeds in being both honest and introspective as the job encourages both girls to think about how the death of their own mother has shaped them into the women they’ve become. Unfortunately the laughs stop in the second half and the family stuff is pushed to the point of being a drawn-out downer.

Another thing I thought the movie could have done better was the subplot of the girls bringing some comfort to the remaining family of the deceased. Rose sits with a woman whose husband just committed suicide and Norah befriends one’s aloof daughter (Mary Lyn Rajskub) and tries to connect with her because of her own mommy issues. Just I wished the movie spent more time inserting the girls into the lives of these people and fleshing them out to a point where they’re not just tools for sympathy. A supply clerk (Clifton Collins Jr.) is also tossed into the script as a possible love interest for later but nothing ever happens with him either.

The melding of gross comedy and heartfelt family drama doesn’t really work but what holds this movie together are what I believe to be the two best female performances I’ve seen all year so far. Adams is very sympathetic and resourceful as a woman trying to achieve respect again whereas Blunt plays the wayward younger sister role as both irresponsibly endearing (her going on about the story of lobster man and how being a bastard is bad-ass makes her a fantastic aunt) and painfully vulnerable. The two of them together counteract each other and make a funny, heartfelt pairing. The rest of the cast includes Alan Arkin, whose quirky but doesn’t really get that much funny material, Clifton Collins, who shows considerable charm and charisma despite playing a one-armed supply store clerk, and Jason Spevack, who's cute but not in that annoying little kid way.

“Sunshine Cleaning” works on the backs of its two stars though. Overall it doesn’t feel as much of a complete work as say “Little Miss Sunshine," not that I’m trying to compare the two or saying that “Cleaning” is a bad flick, because it’s not. I’d say it's one of the better movies I’ve seen this year, but it could have benefited from a tighter script.
Craig's Grade: B
Craig's Overall Grading: 340 graded movies
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