Friday, April 1, 2011

Sunshine Cleaning

Dark humor is a tricky muse.  While there is always something to be done at exactly the wrong time and place, very few movies are willing to entertain such sociopathic delights for long.  One reason is because it's hard to root for characters that are complete bastards; the other is that too much inappropriate behavior dulls the senses.  Personally, I like the change of pace that dark/black comedies provide, so I watched Sunshine Cleaning with a sense of optimism that usually doesn't accompany films that center around death and/or cleaning.

Rose (Amy Adams) is tired of her life.  It's not a bad life, but it kind of sucks.  She's a single mom, and her son, Oscar (Jason Spevack), just got expelled from school for licking too many people and things.  She has a close relationship with her little sister, Norah (Emily Blunt), who is a career (bad) waitress.  Her father, Joe (Alan Arkin), is an eccentric businessman that specializes in novelties.  Rose works as a maid, does a good job, but she doesn't get much money or self-respect from the gig; when she accidentally runs into a high school friend (whose house she just cleaned), Rose lies and tells her that she is a maid only until she gets her real estate license.  Rose's only outlet seems to be her motel trysts with Mac (Steve Zahn), her high school boyfriend that is married with children.  Life could be worse, but it could easily suck less for Rose.

One night, Mac recounts his day at work to Rose; he is a police officer, and he noticed just how much money can be made by cleaning companies that specialize in crime scene cleaning.  Obviously, that would involve cleaning up a lot of blood and other fluids, but how hard could it possibly be?  Rose enlists Norah as her employee, and the two begin Sunshine Cleaning.  Of course, there's more to cleaning biological material than just throwing it in the trash, so Rose befriends Winston (Clifton Collins, Jr.), the owner of a cleaning supplies shop.  Let the hijinks begin!
Blood + Weekend Chore = Comedy Gold?

Well...not so fast.  While the movie trailers and most online retailers qualify this film as a comedy (or a comedy-drama, at the very least), it's not really a funny movie.  Sure, there are some funny moments as the girls dip their toes in the morbid business of cleaning up after the dead, but this is definitely more of a lighthearted drama than anything else.  If "lighthearted" seems like an unusual description for a movie so steeped in death, then you're in the same boat as me.

The acting in the film is all high quality.  Amy Adams doesn't act in a lot of movies that I actually want to watch, but when I see her on the screen, I find her generally likable.  She doesn't disappoint here; she is able to balance the funny and the tragic in the script, and she doesn't overact in a movie that is fairly melodramatic at times.  Emily Blunt was also good, although her character didn't have the range of Adams'.  The trouble I had with her performance was that her character has difficulty articulating what she is feeling, and Blunt's performance doesn't provide an answer, it just mirrors that confusion.  Alan Arkin was plays a very good weird grandpa character, although the similarities between this performance and his work in Little Miss Sunshine are pretty noticeable.  He just has a smaller role in this film.  I was surprised to see Steve Zahn in such an unlikable supporting role, but he played it straight and did a respectable job.  Mary Lynn Rjskub had a small role as a woman that Norah stalks and befriends for unknown reasons; she was generally okay, but her awkwardness on screen is overwhelming at times.  If she ever makes a movie with Phillip Seymour Hoffman, it will be positively unwatchable.  Clifton Collins, Jr. had the unenviable task of playing a one-armed man in a post-The Fugitive society, but I was impressed with the nuance he brought to his character.  His character clearly has a crush on Rose, but it's all nonverbal; he also handled Oscar's comments about his missing arm with delicacy and dramatic restraint.
Harrison's looking for you, Clifton Collins!
I thought Christine Jeffs did a fine job directing this movie, although her strength clearly lies with her handling of the actors.  I liked all the performances in the movie, and I think Jeffs did a good job keeping the acting pretty realistic.  If you consider how all over the place Clifton Collins' performances can be, I think Jeffs' talents become more apparent.  I was disappointed that there were not more visually arresting moment in this film.  In a story where characters have to clean up after death, I would think that there would be a lot of striking visuals.  Aside from the scene where the sisters take toothbrushes to clean up a bloody shower, Sunshine Cleaning is definitely lacking in that department.

The biggest problem I have with Sunshine Cleaning is that is half-asses everything.  It's a comedy, but it doesn't take the time to be very funny.  It's a drama, but it's too quirky to be taken seriously.  The characters all seem like they are at crossroads in their lives, but none come to a satisfactory conclusion; you can argue that perhaps this wasn't a film that aimed for a tidy ending, but it the final scene had unmistakably happy music playing.  A lot of the drama in the film comes from a revelation (SPOILER ALERT: their job makes them clean up after a lot of suicides, and that's how their mother died.  Shock.  Awe.  Sympathy.) that was too coincidental to feel anything but manipulative, and I resented that.  There was also a ridiculous recurring theme of using a CB radio to talk to the dead that was too melodramatic for this movie.

Like Rose's life, Sunshine Cleaning could be a lot worse.  It has solid directing, a good premise and some impressive acting, but that can't save the movie from a story that cannot decide on a tone and some regretfully sappy moments.


  1. I too give this film a six when I first saw it in 2009. I'm trying to decide why I'm leaning now to giving it a seven.

  2. Maybe it's a grower? It's certainly not bad, but I'm still happy with a six.