Sunshine Cleaning

Posted March 12, 2009 in Film

Amy Adams is a living doll from her button nose to her can-do spunk; like Barbie, she can do anything. Here, she plays Rose Norkowski, a former Albuquerque homecoming queen scraping by as a single mother while still schtupping old boyfriend Steve Zahn, once the school quarterback and now a married cop who’s romantic motel sessions have goaded her to put her life on hold for ten years. On a tip from Zahn, Adams and slacker sister Emily Blunt open a crime scene clean up business, hoping to rake in the lucrative bucks that come from mopping up brains and putrefaction. It’s the dirtiest of dirty work, but Adams manages to find a way to take pride in helping the bereaved put their lives back in order; a scene where she tries to share her sweet-natured spin on her new career to her snobby McMansion former classmates rings true.  


Christine Jeffs’ dramedy begs for comparisons to Little Miss Sunshine: it shares a title word, producers, and Alan Arkin, here playing Adams and Blunt’s eccentric father. I’m going to be in the minority here, but I think Sunshine Cleaning is the better film. Where on second viewings, the airy charm of Little Miss Sunshine moldered with its contrived quirks, Sunshine Cleaning grows in resonance. Adams’ performance deserves much of the credit—she’s created a seamless character at once prideful and humble, able to be thoughtless, selfish, and even innocuously manipulative while still scooping up the audience’s affection and loyalty without ever begging for it. Screenwriter Megan Holly has written her a far richer character than Adams had in Doubt—where she had little to do besides widen her eyes and cower—and planted her in a blue collar berg that feels legitimately lived in, even without the kitschy VW van.


Still, even that dig at Little Miss Sunshine feels unfair. In the year and a half since that came out, surely we should have more room—not less—for tender and insightful comedies about the working broke. Pitting them against each other in a poverty death match seems miserly, particularly when no one is complaining about the comparative glut of movies about well-dressed men waving guns. Sunshine Cleaning is a modest microcosm of a film where everyone is hard up enough on their luck that they accept doing favors for each other as a way of life, like the one-armed cleaning supplies clerk (Clifton Collins Jr.) who pinch hit babysits Adams’ son Oscar (Jason Spevack) even after he gets reckless with his model planes. Now that the Oscar season is over—this year an especially gilded and dull parade of stiffs—a small, sincere charmer like this feels as fresh as a newly steam-cleaned apartment, and if it inspires other replicants, so much the better. (Amy Nicholson)


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