Film 'Sunshine Cleaning' Succeeds with Comedy But Flounders With Drama

Photo: A sister act. Amy Adams and Emily Blunt star as sisters who enter the business of crime scene cleanup in the movie 'Sunshine Cleaning.'
Lacey Terrell/Staff
A sister act. Amy Adams and Emily Blunt star as sisters who enter the business of crime scene cleanup in the movie 'Sunshine Cleaning.'

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Despite a multitude of talented actors, "Sunshine Cleaning" is intended as a vehicle for the growing star power of Amy Adams. Polite, perky, but deceptively tough and above all hopeless, she stars as Rose Lorkowski, a single mom, full-time maid and former head cheerleader who's still dating her high school flame. Cute, right? Except the now thirtysomething former varsity quarterback, Mac (Steve Zahn), is married and expecting his second child, and still the pair meet every week to consummate their sordid affair in a mangy motel room. From this introduction, you'd think the film's challenge would be creating a sympathetic heroine out of an eager accomplice to adultery, but those familiar with the redheaded starlet know better. Despite her dubious relationship choices, Adams' struggling single mom act is expertly calculated to win hearts.

When her adolescent son Oscar is suspended from school yet again-this time for refusing to abate his habit of licking school property-Rose decides she's had it. Her defiant march from principal's office to school parking lot, apologetic Oscar in reassuring hand, is one of the film's most affecting moments. Tired of dealing with hypersensitive teachers who prescribe medication for every kid who fidgets in his seat, her solution is to send the boy to a private school, one with tuition her current salary can't afford. It's a thin premise, but point taken: She needs money. And fast. Enter Sunshine Cleaning. Teaming up with her chronically downtrodden and intermittently employed younger sister Norah (Emily Blunt), Rose enters the apparently lucrative business of crime scene cleanup.

Initially, the pair's newfound occupation provides them with moments of sisterly affection and irrepressible giggles, despite the stains and smells. It also leads them to Winston (Clifton Collins Jr.), the fantastically mustached, one-armed owner of an industrial cleaning supply store. With his advice, the girls begin the transition from clueless hacks to legitimate professionals. But along the way, things begin to darken. The girls comfort grieving widows and recall through surreal flashbacks the tragic suicide of their own mother. It becomes heavy-handed, depriving Rose and Norah the chance to flesh out their obvious comedic chemistry, which doesn't translate as well to the drama that dominates the film's latter half. Michael Penn's score reflects the film's descent into run-of-the-mill sentimentality, reverting to predictably sappy strings and tinges of piano where it had once swung with catchy swamp rock.

The film's strength lies in its ensemble of interesting characters. Its weakness is that they can't all be the leads. Collins gives tantalizing hints to Winston's dark-or at the very least strange-past, but nothing more. Whether he's a love interest for Rose or not remains unclear, but one can't help but hope he's not: With his charming awkwardness and uncertain smile, he's just too hip for the earnest Rose. But enough with speculation. Here is fact: Emily Blunt steals this movie. Adorned with dark makeup, chain jewelry and tattoos, she's an anguished beauty. Shrouded eyes, pallid complexion and toothy smile distinguish a face that masks an inner complexity, making Norah a uniquely interesting and indecipherable character, unlike Adams' transparent portrayal of Rose.

Predictably maneuvering between desperate maid, jilted lover and stressed-out single mom, Adams is effortlessly endearing-the movie depends on it. She lets loose her signature smile when the scene calls for it, furrows her motherly brow convincingly and laughs with reckless abandon. Nevertheless, filmmakers would've done well to apportion some of Adams' screen time to her talented costars.

Blessed and cursed with this large, talented cast, "Sunshine Cleaning" is a portrait of family dysfunction that aims unusually high and covers too much ground. It has some memorable moments, no doubt, but its faults are many. It involves more characters than can possibly be developed, and most egregious, Adams' lead is the least interesting of them. It's funny at times, but "Sunshine Cleaning" wallows too long in saccharine family drama and attests to the truth of the time-tested adage that sometimes less is more.


Reminisce about your high school days with Nick at [email protected]

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