Wednesday, May 13, 2009

465 - Sunshine Cleaning review

Death fills the air in “Sunshine Cleaning,” both literally and figuratively. You call the titular cleaning service when your home or business becomes tainted by a bloody death, requiring the service of women clothed in biohazard suits and armed with a steadfast resistance to nauseating scenery.

What works so well about “Sunshine Cleaning” is that its characters don’t just experience the physical side of death, but the mental ones too. They’ve suffered their own losses and weathered their own storms, and the sites they come to clean hold a familiarity, that of anguish and loss and the uneasy mystery of what awaits after we shuffle off this mortal coil.

The Sunshine Cleaning service is the brainchild of Rose (Amy Adams), a single mom and former high school hotshot now cleaning the kitchens of her old cheerleading squad mates. Every few nights she moonlights as the paramour of Mac (indie movie staple Steve Zahn), a detective and her high school love who married someone else. One day he comes back from a suicide call with a nickel’s worth of free advice: join the messy death cleanup industry, charging obscene sums to remove the fluids that gunshot and knife wounds tend to leave behind.

With her son in need of private school, Rose jumps at the chance, enlisting her slacker sister Norah (Emily Blunt) to help scrub the blood off bathroom walls with a toothbrush. It’s unpleasant, but the bodies are gone before they get there, and the sisters appreciate the strange intimacy they feels with both the deceased and the victims. Alive but a short time ago, a violent death was their fate, often originating from inconsolable misery and heartbreak. When asked by old friends if she enjoys her job, Rose says “We help a little.”

The film would have likely faltered were it not for Adams and Blunt, who imbue their characters with a delicacy and sense of loss that makes us not only understand the mistakes that brought them here, but to sympathize with them. It’s often distracting to see beautiful women play worn out characters, but Adams and Blunt inhabit their roles with weariness and disappointment, as if the sisters were aware of their physical charms and are unimpressed by how much they’ve helped in the adult world.

Three other characters are less important: Alan Arkin plays their father, who exists primarily to remind us of his role in “Little Miss Sunshine.” Mary Lynn Rajskub is a woman who Norah befriends for altruistic purposes, but the story arc yields little rewards. And Clifton Collins Jr. steals scenes as the friendly owner of a cleaning supplies store, but his story remains unresolved come the credits. Was there ever anything to be had between him and Rose, and why did he only have one arm? I wanted to know. Of all the complaints one can have about a film, “I wanted to know” is perhaps the nicest one.

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