Set in Albuquerque, Sunshine Cleaning features a beat up van, a suicide subplot, and Alan Arkin bonding with a cute grandkid. Unsurprisingly, critics can't get over the film's similarity to Little Miss Sunshine.
The film, which comes out in New York and Los Angeles today, stars Amy Adams as Rose Lorkowski, a woman who peaked in high school when she was a popular cheerleader dating the star quarterback. Now a single mother in her 30s, she clings to her former glory by having an affair with her high school boyfriend (Steve Zahn) who is married. When her son (Jason Spevack) needs to be sent to a special school, Lorkowski decides to raise the money by opening a business cleaning up bloody crime scenes with her cynical sister Norah (Emily Blunt). Norah lives at home with their father (Alan Arkin) and both sisters are still dealing with their mother's suicide years ago.
The film was written and directed by women - first time screenwriter Megan Holley and director Christine Jeffs - and inspired by an NPR story from 2001 about two women who clean up crime scenes. Sunshine Cleaning was produced by the same team behind Little Miss Sunshine, and most critics compared it unfavorably to the Oscar-winning film. However, they still found a lot to like in the movie, especially Amy Adams and Emily Blunt's performances. Below, we take a look at the reviews for Sunshine Cleaning.
The old adage says: The best roles for actresses fall into three categories-hookers, victims, and doormats. The two sturdy, quirky heroines of Sunshine Cleaning break that rule. Good for them. But a patchy plot and dull direction blot out what could be a radiant portrait of women grappling with loss, ambition and life's general messiness ... The macabre setup is fascinating, to be sure, but the filmmakers never give us the gritty details on any of the scenes the girls are scrubbing up after. While the yellowing class photo, forgotten shopping list and forlorn pet are all nice touches, plot cannot survive on nice touches alone. Without any real conflict, Cleaning goes nowhere and creaks to a close.
Director Christine Jeffs, who previously helmed Rain and Sylvia, tries to strike a balance between the yarn's dark currents and offbeat comedy, but the result is often uneasy, with the humor receding as things progress. Still, the film is in good measure saved by the leads, especially Adams, who proves once again what a sparkling, irresistible screen presence she has. So energizing and uplifting is she that considerable interest attends the test of her ability to perform scenes of doubt and despair (she can), and no matter her character's previous decade of drudge work, Adams leaves no doubt that Rose will find a way to prevail in the end.
Sunshine Cleaning embodies a curious indie paradox: it's a non-commercial, deeply personal film that overlaps so extensively with other non-commercial, deeply personal films that it feels strangely generic. Clifton Collins Jr., for example, plays a sad-eyed, one-armed model-building clerk who forms an unlikely bond with Adams' spooky, precocious son. Though well-acted, Collins Jr.'s character nevertheless feels like a random assemblage of Sundance quirks.
Ironically, for a movie that's marketed with the one-liner "Life's a messy business," Holley's script has been polished to within an inch of its life. Emotions are experienced most vividly when they're raw, but in Sunshine Cleaning, feelings come filtered through neat-and-tidy grace notes. The film flirts with dangerous material, but it's too intent on putting the sunny side up to get its hands dirty. The way director Jeffs tells it, not only is suicide painless it can be positively feel-good.
Both Rose and Norah have adult sex lives - imperfect, to be sure, but real sex lives all the same. For a time, Rose has a lusty relationship with a married cop (Steve Zahn). Norah, meanwhile, beds a guy who means as little to her as she means to herself. These brief nods to the reality of female sexuality seem almost accidental in an otherwise contrived movie. But I'm grateful for the sky-clearing flashes of insight.
Although Adams and Blunt work hard at giving dimension to their characters, they can't overcome the fact that the story is essentially a greatest hits of family trauma. The dead mom, the capable sibling who tries to hold everything together at her own expense, the fragile sibling who's always relying on everyone else for help: Neither the actors nor the filmmakers can cut through those stock ideas to get to anything meaningful or moving.
There needs to be a childhood trauma to inject a little more pathos into their relationship, and to this end the filmmakers supply a dead mother, whose suicide continues to haunt Rose and Norah. Except when it doesn't: Rose is perfectly happy to make a flippant joke about suicide in one scene, only to howl in undimmed rage and grief a short while later.
The movie is made up of so many singular and simple pleasures, ones that Jeffs and screenwriter Megan Holley infuse with such pure grace that you want to hold on to even the most ordinary ones ... Thanks to Holley's screenplay, there are themes aplenty running through Sunshine Cleaning, such as how a family copes with the tragedies of the past and new ones in the making and the way older sisters think they are required to look after things. It is a story with economic lessons everywhere, a fitting eulogy for the culture of greed and a reminder that hard work — not miracles — will save you. When it all comes together, you are left with a tableau of hope, humor and a truth-telling reality that is a salve for the recessionary soul.