Saturday, July 11, 2009

Review - Sunshine Cleaning

When you've already had a hit with a quirky, Albuquerque-set comedy about a loving but dysfunctional family, what do you do next? For the producers behind
Little Miss Sunshine, it seems the answer was to repeat the formula as closely as possible and hope for the best. From the title, to the presence of a beat-up old van, to the casting of Alan Arkin as a cranky old geezer who dotes on his grandchild, the similarities between Sunshine Cleaning and that 2006 Oscar-winner are too blatant to ignore. The film is clearly being aimed at the same market whom lapped up Little Miss Sunshine's trite idiosyncrasies and are hungry for more, and that's unfortunate, because there's plenty of potential going to waste here. Sunshine Cleaning is a film about two squabbling sisters who join forces to start their own crime scene cleanup operation, and one can imagine the macabre fun a daring filmmaker could have had with this premise. Alas, Christine Jeffs is not a daring filmmaker.

Sunshine Cleaning is the work of debutant screenwriter Megan Holley, but it feels like an early draft that needed more development before being rushed into production. The Lorkowski sisters are Rose (Amy Adams) and Norah (Emily Blunt), and their characters are quickly established in the opening moments. Once a popular high school cheerleader, Rose is now a downtrodden single mother, working as a cleaner and trapped in an affair with a cop (Steve Zahn), who has promised for years that they'll be together one day, although he shows no signs of leaving his wife. Despite all of this, Rose still forges ahead with a determination and spunk that her younger sister Norah (Emily Blunt) totally lacks; she's a pot-smoking waster who can't hold a job, and who hasn't found any sense of direction in her life. When Rose discovers that crime scene cleanup is a potentially lucrative market, she enlists her reluctant sister to help get Sunshine Cleaning off the ground.

The jaunty, lightly comic (but not very funny) situations they find themselves in early on, as they embark upon a variety of disgusting cleanup operations, are shadowed by the lingering trauma of their mother's death, which occurred when they were both children. The thing is, I never really believed that this happened; I didn't believe that they would jump so easily into this line of work, considering the circumstances under which they discovered their mother's body, and I didn't believe it was anything more than a plot device aimed at wringing some cathartic tears out of the actresses late on.
Sunshine Cleaning is full of such devices – see also the references to an old TV show, or the mawkish CB radio moment – and their clumsy usage neuters the film's emotional impact, despite the best efforts of the cast. Amy Adams and Emily Blunt are two of the best actresses around right now, and Adams' tremulous performance rapidly earns our sympathy, but there's a real imbalance between the amount of characterisation the two of them have to work with. While Rose is given multiple layers, Norah is a desperately underwritten figure, who barely develops during the course of the picture. When she finally announces, "I think I'm going to take a road trip," we're expected to take this as a sign of her maturation, and ask no more questions.

Other good actors are similarly left adrift. Mary Lynn Rajskub has a small role as a lesbian nurse who takes a shine to Norah, but the most baffling aspect of
Sunshine Cleaning is the treatment of the talented actor Clifton Collins Jr. He is tentatively set up as a possible romantic interest for Rose, but is otherwise given no character, beyond a ponytail, a fondness for model aeroplanes, and a missing arm, with the filmmakers refraining from giving us the story behind his absent limb. As in Little Miss Sunshine, these quirks are hung on the character in lieu of real development; like Steve Carell's obsession with Proust, or Paul Dano's desire to be a pilot, they don't reveal anything meaningful to us about these people, it's just lazy writing. That laziness culminates in a happy ending which is contrived and insultingly neat, turning Sunshine Cleaning into the film it always wanted to be: an inoffensive, middle-of-the-road crowd-pleaser. I doubt this mundane effort will have anything like the widespread appeal of its similarly titled predecessor, however. It seems Sunshine doesn't strike twice.