[27 March 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s a part of life we generally don’t think about - mostly because it reminds us of our own morality, and because of the gruesome nature of the business. For most, we didn’t even know it existed. Yet every time a crime occurs, every time a person, famous or forgotten, takes their own life or that of another, someone has to come along and clean up the mess. No, the police don’t do it, and local law enforcement doesn’t typically provide post-investigation housekeeping under the “serve and protect” slogan. Someone has to come along and dispose of the debris and make something civilized out of an event horrific. For the characters in the new indie comedy Sunshine Cleaning, working the post-mortem detail is kind of a happy accident. Unfortunately, it’s about the only joy these individuals, or this movie, manages to harbor.
You see, Rose is a single mother raising a confused and complicated kid named Oscar. She was once the head cheerleader in high school. Now she’s a maid working for the same classmates she used to hang out with. She also maintains a relationship with BMOC turned married police officer Mac. He has promised a divorce, but his ever increasing family seems to suggest otherwise. Desperate to raise enough money to send her son to a fancy private school, Rose decides to get into the business of mopping up crime scenes. Mac helps her with a few connections, and local supply clerk Winston shows her the ropes. Rose then hires on her troubled sister Norah, and together they begin their death-based endeavor. As the jobs get messier and messier, the girls are reminded of the pain they experienced when their mother committed suicide. Another tragic accident will have them questioning their commitment to the business, and each other.
Sunshine Cleaning is a slice of life carved so thinly it can barely stand up on its own. Without the amazing support of actors Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, this minor microcosm of New Mexican fringe dwelling would fall apart from outright narrative apathy. While many would have you believe this is some amazing indie treasure, sitting right along side Little Miss Sunshine and Juno as grrrl power gems, in reality, this is navel-gazing non-action that only perks up when the obvious is avoided and the truly unusual is explored. This is a movie with many intriguing elements: the burgeoning relationship between Rose and supply store clerk Winston; the tormented past of the girls’ mother; little Oscar’s obvious emotional problems. Yet director Christine Jeffs and screenwriter Megan Holley keep meandering back to material we don’t care about. As a result, the film feels like a lost opportunity.
Even the premise gets underplayed. Crime scene clean-up has got to be a very demanding, very high stress, and very disturbing job, no matter how desensitized you become to the carnage. The sights, the sounds, the significance would be the override theme of any story centering on it. Sunshine Cleaning does pay lip service to the meaning of going from maid to residential mortician, but it’s not enough. Adams talks about “being connected”, while Blunt is more prosaic about removing the last vestiges of a human being from the Earth. Of course all of this based around their own parent’s suicide, but the reality of their reactions remains mute. Only once, where Rose sits and comforts an elderly woman who just lost her husband, does the movie have the kind of emotional impact we’re looking for. The rest of the time, this job simple exists for its inherent quirk value.
As do many of the side characters. Alan Arkin’s presence will remind many of his Oscar winning work in Little Miss, though his flim-flamming figure father here is very poorly defined. So is former football player/boyfriend/police officer Steve Zahn. There is an entire movie to be made about the post-high school downfall of both Mac and Rose, something hinted at during our heroine’s ill-fated reunion with her ex-classmates at a baby shower. But just like the logistics of situations, Sunshine Cleaning pulls back on the personal reigns as well, leaving us frustrated and wanting much, much more. There’s also too much grandstanding obviousness, as when Norah goes “trestling” - which is nothing more than an excuse for getting drunk, climbing a train bridge, and crying as her past washes by in locomotive fueled flashbacks.
This is a movie unsure of its symbolism, unaware of what to do with Winston’s one armed model making, or Oscar’s obsession with binoculars. There is a CB radio that acts as a conduit to the characters’ desire to communicate with the other side, but for the most part, Jeffs makes a joke of such searching. And then there is the last act reveal. In essence, without giving much away, a character creates a situation that he or she could have stepped up and offered early on. It would have probably solved a great many problems for everyone involved, and taken the burden of business acumen away from those unfamiliar with such real world needs. But yet, the script waits until the last ten minutes to pull this plot point out, manipulating the audience into a false sense of affection while creating complicated narrative entanglements that never come loose.
Still, Adams and Blunt make this a brisk, breezy two hours. The chemistry they offer and the performances they deliver act as a buffer for Sunshine Cleaning‘s many misgivings. Had the oddball been tossed aside in favor of more family strife, had the unnecessary subplots been shorn of their overall import, had things been simplified to suggest legitimate desperation instead of the manufactured movie kind, we’d appreciate the effort even more. But sans all these suggested changes, what we wind up with is a pleasant experience marred by little lasting impact. As with many movies that come out each year, Sunshine Cleaning begs the question of whom the intended audience is. Lovers of art house fair will probably feel shorted. Mainstream moviegoers won’t appreciate the overeager eccentricity. The result is a wash - not the best way to judge a potential entertainment.