Monday, March 16, 2009

Cleaning Never Felt This Good

A single mom and her slacker sister find an unexpected way to turn their lives around in the off-beat dramatic comedy Sunshine Cleaning. Directed by Christine Jeffs (Rain, Sylvia), this uplifting film about an average family that finds the path to its dreams in an unlikely setting screened in competition at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Once the high school cheerleading captain who dated the quarterback, Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams) now finds herself a thirty something single mother working as a maid. Her sister Norah, (Emily Blunt), is still living at home with their dad Joe (Alan Arkin), a salesman with a lifelong history of ill-fated get rich quick schemes. Desperate to get her son into a better school, Rose persuades Norah to go into the crime scene clean-up business with her to make some quick cash. In no time, the girls are up to their elbows in murders, suicides and other…specialized situations. As they climb the ranks in a dirty job, the sisters find respect for one another.

No one gives a thought to what happens with all the muck and gore left after a particularly messy exit: Murders, suicides, nasty accidents; someone’s gotta clean it up and that someone is Rose Lorkowski. Rose is a hard-working single mom, barely able to make ends meet as a cleaning lady when she receives the news that her young son’s eccentric behaviour has gotten him tossed out of school. Desperate times call for desperate measures now that her boy needs to go to a private school and Rose’s ongoing affair with a married detective leads her to an unusual yet lucrative new career. Sunshine Cleaning has plenty of potential for broad comedy when two disparate sisters decide to clean up nasty crime scenes for a living; thankfully the film is a lot more than that. Director Christine Jeffs gives us a modern nuclear family, with the Lorkowski patriarch himself a single parent who struggled to raise two very different girls. Hyper-responsible from an early age, Rose took on the role of surrogate parent to her little sister after their mother’s suicide. Norah, the younger sibling, is a rudderless ball of slack, who’s practically expected to screw up even the simplest of tasks and never fails to disappoint. Even in this new career venture, Norah knows she’s only working beside Rose because there was no one else to ask. The set up is ripe for recriminations and all sorts of drama we’ve seen before, but the difference with Sunshine Cleaning is the real and caring way the Lorkowskis interact; their acceptance and support of each other despite their character flaws manages to be heartwarming yet refreshingly light on schmaltz. The humour in Sunshine Cleaning is more dry than riotously hilarious, showing nice restraint by keeping the icky crime scene snickers to a minimum, while making the most of the cast’s sharp, yet wonderfully off-hand timing. Amy Adams and Emily Blunt are totally simpatico as sisters Rose and Norah, sharing a similar vibe regardless of their character’s differences making their casting as sisters perfect. Adams, as the capable, nose-to-the-grindstone Rose, only has joy in her memories of high-school glory days and in illicit meetings with her married lover. Adams’ hesitant delivery beautifully registers Rose’s shame when faced with an old schoolmate who married well and now hires the one-time head cheerleader to clean her palatial home. Emily Blunt as the ne’er-do-well Norah is hilarious and moving. For all her good intentions, whether it’s reluctantly becoming the other half of Rose’s messy new venture, babysitting and contributing to the delinquency of her nephew, or taking the awkward first steps of romance with a woman whose picture Norah finds in the home of a departed subject, the girl just can’t get right. Norah’s wide, kohl-smeared saucer eyes, stunned at times at her own foolishness, show a wounded, caring girl who nobody seems to have ever had any faith in, least of all herself. Balancing the slow burn that going into business together has lit between the siblings is a nice performance by Clifton Collins, Jr., as the one-armed owner of an industrial cleaning shop where the girls stock up after realising that a spritz of Fantastik might not be the most suitable option for removing blood stains. Collins’ kindly, gentle Winston serves as a reminder to Rose that even in unusual packaging, there really are men in the world who aren’t schmucks. Alan Arkin plays the girls’ father, a jack-of-all-trades salesman, always on the make for the next get-rich-quick scheme. Not far removed from Arkin’s Oscar-winning role as the grandfather of 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine, the gruff, senior Lorkowski dotes on Rose’s son and supports his two daughters, right or wrong, only rearing his head when there is strife between the girls. Whatever drama there’s been about the bad choices made in this family has already taken place long before our story and like any real family; the Lorkowskis are dealing with the here and now. A script that could have easily tread into Lifetime movie of the week territory is lifted up by skillful and heartfelt performances from its excellent cast. The utterly charming combination of Adams and Blunt are the icing on the cake of the sentimental and smartly funny Sunshine Cleaning. A great movie with a lot of heart. A definite 4 on my "Go See" scale.

No comments: