Running time 102 minutes
Written by Megan Holley
Directed by Christine Jeffs
Starring Amy Adams, Alan Arkin, Emily Blunt
Things are so desperate in today’s job market that anything goes. Cleaning up crime scenes, the subject of a new movie called Sunshine Cleaning, is one career with no previous experience required. Newly downsized money managers are getting hip. Like collecting unpaid debts from the dead, it’s a business with such growth potential that I’ve even started getting applications on the Internet. But how, I ask, would scrubbing down a smelly crime scene in the year 2009 be any different from movie reviewing?
One thing about Sunshine Cleaning—written with freshness by Megan Holley and directed with creepy savvy by Christine Jeffs—is definitely nolo contendre: It’s different. It’s about two mutton-headed sisters in Albuquerque, N.M., who can’t succeed at anything else in their stunted lives, so washing down blood-soaked walls with Soilax after murders and suicides comes naturally. Hot on the heels of playing an Oscar-nominated nun in Doubt, Amy Adams plays Rose, a single mom with a mentally challenged son. Life is a series of dead-end detours for Rose, but at least she tries, power-cleaning apartments and suburban homes to keep milk in the fridge. Her life hasn’t worked out like it has for her other high-school friends, and every potential Mr. Right has been replaced by Mr. Right Now (currently a married cop, played by Steve Zahn, who can turn even a sex scene into comedy). Because he knows his way around a disgusting decapitated head from experience, he encourages Rose to grab a mop and a jug of bleach and make some extra dough. Enter her irresponsible, brain-dead sister Norah, played by Emily Blunt, who is several light years removed from the fashion-plate sensation she played in The Devil Wears Prada. (Norah is a tattooed goth who slightly resembles Marilyn Manson.) Hi-ho, it’s off to work they go.
This is not a business you could, by any stretch, call a dream job. The girls handle contaminated materials, decaying body parts, maggots, mattresses stained with body fluids and other hazards that induce vomiting and fainting spells. It’s not for the weak of knees. (A frequent visitor to the blood bank for extra money, Norah even treats the viewer to close-ups of a foot-long hypodermic needle withdrawing blood from a vein.) Haunted by her own mother’s suicide, the incompetent Norah swoons while swabbing down a death scene involving a woman who blew her own head off, then burns down the client’s uninsured house. This is just about the end of the Sunshine Cleaning business and the unpaid-for van they use to haul their chemicals and disinfectants. But God looks after drunks and cabbage heads knocking themselves out to prove they’re not losers. Rescue arrives from the least likely incompetent in the family tree—their doofus father, played by Alan Arkin with only slightly fewer I.Q. points than he bestowed upon the grandfather in Little Miss Sunshine.
Not a great movie, but disarmingly entertaining—especially when you have to rub your eyes to believe what you’re seeing (or cover them to avoid what you’re not seeing). Perky, offbeat performances by two of the current cinema’s most enchanting ladies add extra perks. In a long, cluttered list of dysfunctional family movies, Sunshine Cleaning is crazy enough to seem refreshingly normal.