Does this sound sunny to you? The material might have promise as a black comedy, but its attempt to put on a smiling face is unconvincing. That despite the work by Amy Adams as Rose and Emily Blunt as Norah, two effortless charmers who would be terrific playing these characters in a different movie. And Alan Arkin is back, and engaging, in what is coming dangerously close to “the Alan Arkin role.” He’s their father, Joe, forever hatching get-poor-quick schemes.
Rose is a good mom. She understands her 7-year-old son, Oscar (Jason Spevack), who is not really troubled but simply high-spirited. I wonder how many little boys are accused of misbehaving simply because they are — boys. Why does she still sleep with Mac, the faithless high-school quarterback (Steve Zahn) who seduced and abandoned her? She asks herself the same question.
It’s Mac who tips her off on a possible business. He’s a cop and notices that people get paid well for mopping up after gruesome murders. So is born Rose and Norah’s Sunshine Cleaning, which will clean up the rugs and scrape the brains off the wall, etc. This job by its nature allows them to witness the aftermath of lives unexpectedly interrupted; an ID in a dead woman’s purse leads them to make an awkward acquaintance.
This is promising material. Gene Siskel loved movies about what people actually do all day. There is even a documentary subject here. But not this film that compromises on everything it implies, because it wants to be cheerful about people who don’t have much to be cheerful about. How can you make a feel-good movie about murder-scene clean-ups? “Life’s a messy business,” the poster says. Yes, and death is messier.
At times, the movie works, but those are the times it (and even we) forget what it’s really about. If you could plot it on a curve, it might look like a cross-section of a roller coaster. The poster also evokes “Little Miss Sunshine,” by the same producers, also with Arkin, and the presence of Adams evokes the sublime “Junebug.” Those two movies had more consistent tones and although based on contrivance, felt more natural.
One element does work, and it’s off to the side, apart from the rest of the plot. It involves Winston (Clifton Collins Jr.), a one-armed hardware store owner, who baby-sits Oscar in an emergency and provides an oasis of warmth and common sense. You may recall him as Perry in “Capote” (2005). An actor like this works a lot but doesn’t always get ideal roles. Now he’s beginning to emerge, with seven more films in post-production.
You won’t have a bad time seeing this film. You may get a little frustrated waiting for it to take off. It keeps heading down different runways. There’s a movie here somewhere. Not this one.
No, not that one. “Little Miss Sunshine” came out in 2006. Why on earth would I be reviewing it now? I’m wondering that myself. A better title for the movie I am supposed to review — for the record, it’s “Sunshine Cleaning,” directed by Christine Jeffs from a script by Megan Holley — would be “Sundance Recycling,” since the picture is less a free-standing independent film than a scrap-metal robot built after a shopping spree at the Park City Indie Parts and Salvage Warehouse.
I don’t just mean that aspects of the setting, characters and plot seem awfully familiar (and, in a few cases, familiarly awful). The deeper problem is an overall confusion of tone, mood and genre, a breathless incoherence that comes from the effort to jam too many disparate elements together. In one scene you think you’re in a gritty little regional-realist drama, which gives way to a quirky comedy about adorable eccentrics and then swerves abruptly through psychological melodrama on its way to a cheery, tidy ending.
If, from one of these stuck-together moments to the next, “Sunshine Cleaning” sometimes seems better than it is, that is largely because Ms. Jeffs (“Rain,” “Sylvia”) has a good touch with actors and a very good cast. Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, playing sisters who go into business together, attack their roles with vivacity and dedication, even if the roles themselves don’t entirely make sense.
Ms. Adams, with her tremulous smile and her usual beguiling mixture of fragility and pluck, is Rose, a single mother whose life is a daily struggle with disappointment and humiliation. Though she dreams of getting her real-estate license — perhaps a more seductive dream when the movie was made than it is now — she scratches out a living cleaning houses and hotel rooms. She’s having an affair with Mac (Steve Zahn), her high school boyfriend — he was a football star, she was a cheerleader — who married someone else and works as a police detective. Her son, Oscar (Jason Spevack), is always getting in trouble at school, and her dad (Mr. Arkin, naturally) is an erratic and sometimes troublesome, though generally well-intentioned, old coot.
But Rose, whose recitations of self-help mantras as she looks in the mirror make her a target for the kind of condescension that can play as satire or pity, is by far the more stable of the two sisters. The other, Norah (Ms. Blunt), is the cool, wayward one, who has tattoos on her wrist, bad sex with a guy at a party, and a fondness for telling Oscar scary bedtime stories when she goes over to Rose’s to baby-sit. She also does a bit of stalking, which gives the film a chance to use the wonderful Mary Lynn Rajskub, rather unimaginatively, as yet another faux-provincial American oddball.
It is not enough for the sisters to have oil-and-water temperaments that make their painful quarrels and comic spats inevitable. There needs to be a childhood trauma to inject a little more pathos into their relationship, and to this end the filmmakers supply a dead mother, whose suicide continues to haunt Rose and Norah. Except when it doesn’t: Rose is perfectly happy to make a flippant joke about suicide in one scene, only to howl in undimmed rage and grief a short while later.
“Sunshine Cleaning” is too busy to notice such inconsistencies. Rose and Norah busy themselves with a ghoulishly comical, gratingly improbable new enterprise, which is cleaning up crime scenes. This job allows the film to dabble in cheap, grisly sight gags and also in gratuitous throat-lumping. It’s the human comedy! It’s the human tragedy! It’s love and family and sisterhood and second chances and picking yourself up and dusting yourself off and making lemonade out of lemons. It’s a kindly, one-armed cleaning-supply salesman with wry wisdom, quiet patience, a scraggly ponytail and an endearing hobby. He builds models.
Really, though, “Sunshine Cleaning” is none of those things, apart from the cleaning-supply salesman, played by Clifton Collins Jr. He’s real, which is to say he’s as phony as everything else in the movie. All in all, it’s a mess, and much as Ms. Blunt pouts, Ms. Adams twinkles, and Mr. Arkin growls, there’s nothing they can do to clean it up.