Amy Adams and Emily Blunt work hard for the money in offbeat dramedy
Directed by Christine Jeffs
Cast: Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Alan Arkin
That the new dramedy Sunshine Cleaning comes to theaters courtesy of “the producers of Little Miss Sunshine” will be of little surprise to those who end up watching both films. Aside from the titular noun, the films share a similar dysfunctional family ethic, a near-identical maudlin sense of humor, the same Duke City setting and crotchety old actor Alan Arkin.
Whereas Little Miss Sunshine merely name-dropped Albuquerque as a nondescript Southwestern city (it was shot in California), Sunshine Cleaning actually spent a month or two soaking up the sun-parched stucco atmosphere of our dusty hometown. Amy Adams (hot off her Oscar nod for Doubt) stars as Rose Lorkowski, a single mother whose sunny eyes hide a sad-sack disposition. Next to her lazy, chain-smoking, often-unemployed mess of a sis Norah (Emily Blunt, a rising star since her turn in The Devil Wears Prada), Rose looks like a paragon of responsibility. And yet, she has to recite a self-affirmation mantra in her bathroom mirror every morning to summon up the strength to go to her low-paying, soul-stifling job as a maid. Rose appears to be one of those people who peaked early. Fifteen or so years ago, she was the prettiest, most outgoing cheerleader in high school. Now she’s raising a rambunctious son all by herself, trying her best to make ends meet and—saddest of all—carrying on an affair with a married cop (Steve Zahn).
When her son gets kicked out of public school and her sister gets fired from her job (at Lucky Boy!), Rose faces a major life change. She needs money. And fast. Inspired by a tip from her booty-calling cop, Rose stumbles into crime scene cleanup. With her generally unwilling and unappreciative sister in tow, Rose dips her toes in the icky world of biohazard removal. While mopping up blood in the wake of assorted suicides and murders seems like a rather roundabout way to get one’s self-esteem back, Rose and Norah soon develop a certain affinity for the job. Although they screw up the technical aspects left and right (earning the ire of another more “professional” service in town), the sisters find the job has its own peculiar attractions. Rose likes the sense of purpose it affords, providing a valuable service to family members touched by grief. Norah, on the other hand, finds herself intrigued by the lives of the corpses they’re cleaning up after. By poking though photos and other detritus of a life gone by, Norah attempts to figure out what made these people tick once upon a time.
The script (from first-timer Megan Holley) doesn’t provide a particularly strong central storyline, spinning off on a few too many tangents. Arkin’s antics as Rose and Norah’s constantly scheming father don’t really go anywhere, nor does Rose’s possible romance with the weird guy who runs the cleaning supply store. Rose’s son Oscar (Jason Spevack) gets to navigate some stereotypical coming-of-age crises with the dubious help of his nutty grandfather and his rebellious aunt. Another thread in which Norah tries to contact the daughter (Mary Lynn Rajskub) of a deceased “client” more or less peters out by film’s end, but it provides some solid emotion and gives Blunt a chance to exercise her acting skills.
Fortunately, the chemistry between Adams and Blunt is rock solid and frequently front-and-center. Their often testy interactions are milked for as much drama and comedy as the script has to offer. It’s probably not as funny as most audience members are expecting, but there is a subtle, off-kilter sense of humor at play here that fans of Little Miss Sunshine will surely recognize. In the end, the film surrenders to some tear-jerking sentiment in exploring the cause of Rose and Norah’s lifelong sadness (none of which comes as much of a surprise). But New Zealand director Christine Jeffs (Sylvia) manages to strike a generally even balance between quiet desperation, emotional melancholy and black humor. Plus, she’s smart enough to get the hell out of the way when Adams and Blunt are on screen. At the end of the day, this team of gals does good work.