): Amy Adams
and Emily Blunt
make uncommonly convincing
sisters in Sunshine Cleaning, shrinking what is actually a ten-year age difference down to three or four. It's not that they
look or act particularly alike; Rose (Adams) is a caring single mother struggling to stay optimistic (she keeps an
encouraging post-it on her bathroom mirror), while Norah (Blunt) is a surly layabout, living with the girls' father Joe (Alan Arkin
), getting fired from menial jobs,
and sleeping in her clothes. Adams and Blunt are both beautiful, of course, even (or especially) with unshiny hair and
imperfect skin, but they nail their characters' broken-down shorthand, the way even their impatience itself seems worn out
Adams, especially, commands attention as she dials down her natural sunniness, her chirpy voice slightly deflated and her smiles a little more forced. Rose has a shabby apartment, an eight-year-old son, and a job with a maid service to pay for both. She also has motel-room trysts with a local cop (Steve Zahn
), who suggests, offhand, that she might parlay her maid skills into a crime-scene clean-up business. In need of money to send her son to private school, Rose seizes on the idea, and drags Norah along with her. Article continues below
It all happens a little too easily, as does the sisters' connection to this line of work, via a key detail that, once explained, seems unlikely to have gone unmentioned for so long. Nonetheless, their dedication to the blood-mopping business is sort of sweet -- as is the whole movie, which has no real villains, no characters whose quirkiness overwhelms their essential believability, and, unfortunately, just a little too much manufactured movie conflict nudging aside more subtle, human concerns.
Though it also flirts with comedic overtones, Sunshine Cleaning isn't especially funny -- amusing, sometimes, the way Norah dotes on her nephew, telling him horror stories about a lobster-man and explaining in no uncertain terms what "bastard" means, without breaking her look of perpetual disgust, but never hilarious. The screenplay lacks the mordant instincts required to locate the rich, dark humor of cleaning up after the deceased; there are some gags about the grossness, but writer Megan Holley seems more concerned with empathy in the face of death than laughs.
This seems to suit director Christine Jeffs
just fine, whose last film profiled known cut-up Sylvia Plath. Jeffs brings out an occasional, low-key lyricism from the film's New Mexico setting, and the film might've benefited from more of it. Early on, she matches slow-motion shots of Rose marching through her maid job and Norah stalking off from her latest firing, establishing an immediate link between characters who don't always share the screen but brush up against each other anyway. The filmmakers genuinely like both sisters, and we do too.
In fact, Holley and Jeffs focus so intently on Rose and Norah that a fair number of intriguing side characters aren't allowed
much resolution; stranger, the film radiates such likable warmth that this somehow feels realistic and reasonable, not lazy
or muddled. I'm not sure if Sunshine Cleaning works far better than it should because of the actors, or if Adams and Blunt
(and even Arkin, slightly recycling his irascible grandpa act of late) only prove that the material has untapped potential.
Either way, though, it makes for good-hearted company.