Some people are born into a natural cleanliness with their lives. It could be brought on by a family life that’s built to be clean and meant to stay that way. Some are born into a family life that needs constant care, because it just can’t keep itself from getting dirty. You have to work hard at achieving that goal. Chemicals and scrubbing tools are necessary. At the heart of Sunshine Cleaning is a family in the latter category. It finds itself in need of a deep cleaning. The question is who’s going to do it and how are they going to get it done.
Rose Lorkowski would find herself alone in the world if she didn’t have a child, a good work ethic and a bright personality. She was the head cheerleader in high school and dated the biggest hunk in school, Mac. She maintains an intimate affair with him long after senior year, sneaking off into hotels with him on a weekly basis, under the guise of classes designed to earn her real estate license. Aside from Rose’s grade school age son, Oscar, the reason for the secretive meetings is Mac, now a police officer, is married and has children. Not the most commendable of acts for a woman in need of cleaning up her life. Then again, it serves as her motivation to do so when she realized Mac’s wife is pregnant again.
Rose also has a dedicated-only-to-herself younger sister, Norah, who still lives at home with their retired father. Norah is a waitress for a small restaurant, who apparently has little interest in continuing, as she quits in an instant bit of embarrassment/frustration. Norah is left to babysit Oscar during Rose’s weekly escapades with Mac, and it’s the only time she appears to be an adult to anybody. Her bedtime stories prove to be a bit too influential for him and he reenacts a bit at school, which lands him in the principal’s office. As cliché goes, the school suggests medication for him and Rose is so embarrassed/offended by the suggestion, she decides to rip Oscar out and put him in a private school. How she affords it is another matter.
Her hourly wage at a maid service just won’t cut it, and Mac suggests a service he encountered at a crime scene. It combines Rose’s skills for cleaning up and his detective world, and will give her a large boost in pay: crime scene clean-up. He gives her the first bit of work and she recruits Norah, freshly unemployed and indirectly responsible for Oscar’s need for private school, to help her in the newfound endeavor. Newbie’s they are, they treat a crime scene like any dirty house and throw blood soaked mattresses in dumpsters and maggot infested material in garbage bags, undercutting competition with their unprofessionalism and lower asking price. Rose and Norah must band together and grow within themselves to create unity for their four-pointed nucleus.
Amy Adams has made a living playing naïve, but bubbly characters. Rose isn’t much of a different take on her usual persona, but I’d argue that it’s her most grown-up role to date. I’ve always thought she was good at what she does. She’s earned two Oscar nominations for her previous supporting efforts in Junebug and Doubt. Here, she has a fatherless child, plays a part in an adulterous affair and drops f-bombs in frustration. This could be the role where she turns a corner into a new stage of her career. This isn’t her finest performance, nor is it her finest role, but she’s easily the best thing in an underwhelming film.
If you take a look at the cast list, you might get the impression of a well-acted film, and that could be the case if the players had any sort of material to work with. Alas, this was not the case. Emily Blunt continues to get closer and closer to starring roles since appearing in The Devil Wears Prada, but her Norah is left completely to fend for herself. There’s a slight subplot involving her quest to befriend a daughter of a clean-up self-victim which develops at a rapid pace to go absolutely nowhere. Alan Arkin plays the aimless father, looking to gain funds off of what can only be described as harebrained schemes. Kind of like a blue-haired Wile E. Coyote. Clifton Collins Jr. plays Winston, a superfluous one-armed character, whose importance didn’t even grant a mention in the plot analysis, but who made enough of irritating impression I felt the need to mention him here. Why does he only have one arm? Beats me. It’s mentioned on two different occasions, but never addressed. Remember Herman, the one-armed ex-vet from “The Simpsons?” The idea was that each time someone asked how he lost the arm, he’d give a different explanation. Just one explanation from Winston would’ve been warranted to enable him to rise above “completely worthless.”
The script was written by Megan Holley and directed by Christine Jeffs. It seems to jet off into several directions, never really grounding itself to tell a fully realized story. There are elements to be admired, one in the concept of crime scene clean-up. It’s not a job I’ve ever seen put to screen before and seems destined to be captured in an episode of The Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs.” There’s a cute story of Rose and Norah always watching out for movies with diner scenes, as their now deceased mother once had a bit role in a movie they knew about, but never were able to glimpse. The difficult part is trying to ascertain what the film is trying to say. Most of the jobs they encounter come from the aftermaths of suicides, and there is an attempt at making a statement on that subject, but it never comes to fruition. I felt after 90 minutes with these characters, I was no closer to understanding who they were than when I first encountered them. They seemed like decent people, but never bothered to reveal themselves.
Amy Adams beginning to headline films is a good thing for all of us, and although this isn’t the calling card she may have wanted, it serves as a stepping stone into the next stage of a career. It’s the script that truly falters her and the rest of the cast. It almost felt to me like I was making up the metaphor of cleaning up one’s life just to serve the purpose of this review, because it’s not something the film willingly presented. Pieces of better material were present, but were gunked up. It’s the script that needed a good wiping down.