Anchor Bay // 2009 // 91 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Christopher Kulik (Retired) // August 25th, 2009
Life's a messy business.
"How did your mother die?" -- Mary Lynn Rajskub
"It was a do-it-yourself type thing!" -- Emily Blunt
Ne'er-do-well single mom Rose (Amy Adams, Doubt) is struggling to make ends meet in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Rose is determined to break into the real estate business, but she has her hands full taking care of her weirdo son Oscar (Jason Spevack, Hollywoodland), who's just been kicked out of another elementary school. To complicate matters more, Rose is still in love with high school sweetheart Mac (Steve Zahn, Rescue Dawn), a small-town cop who seems unwilling to leave his wife...particularly after she gets pregnant for the second time.
When Rose stresses to Mac her son's educational needs, he suggests she becomes a "biohazard cleaner," scrubbing down crime scenes after the yellow tape has been removed. Undaunted, she drags along her younger sister Norah (Emily Blunt, The Jane Austen Book Club) to assist in cleaning up the carnage. In the meantime, Oscar starts spending more time with his eccentric Grandpa Joe (Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine) and Wilson (Clifton Collins, Jr., Capote), a novelty store owner who's missing an arm.
Sunshine Cleaning is another one of those Sundance darlings that will appeal to fans of the offbeat and the quirky. So, in other words, if you are expecting any form of conventional storytelling, forget it. Sure, first-time writer Megan Holley's script has the recognizable three-act structure, but she's more concerned with character and idiosyncrasies than a by-the-numbers plot. In addition, while the ads boast this is from the producers of Little Miss Sunshine, the tone here is radically different. Whereas Little Miss was sharply satirical and hilarious, Sunshine Cleaning is an oddball mix of black comedy, optimistic whimsy, and delicate heartache.
Virginia native Holley got the original premise from a 2001 NPR article about two Seattle women who clean death scenes. At the same time Holley won a state screenwriting competition, director Christine Jeffs was putting the finishing touches on her 2003 film Sylvia. Despite its strong female pedigree, however, Sunshine Cleaning is hardly a typical chick flick, mostly because of the film's unapologetic dark nature. Holley's humor is authentically awkward, sly, and even cringe-worthy at times. For example, after Norah looks at a blood-stained mattress and pukes, an aggravated Rose says, "Great, now we have to clean that up too!" Wisely, Holley does keep the gore gags to a minimum, opting instead to focus on the estranged relationship between the two sisters.
Rose is one of those women who feels like she got shafted after high school -- literally and figuratively. She was the head cheerleader, dated the football captain, had college ambitions, etc. Now, all of her friends/competitors have attained a modest amount of success while Rose is still trying to be something other than a maid. Most of her life has been restricted to maternal duties, especially when it comes to Norah, who's now a lazy slacker with nary a future. We understand why both are failures, and we sympathize with them when they both admit it. At its core, the story of Sunshine Cleaning may be lopsided and uneven, but it's interesting to see how Rose and Norah change when they start their business. (In case you haven't noticed by now, the title has a double meaning.)
It also helps when you have two dynamite leads on display. Both Adams and Blunt are savvy, sophisticated young actresses who've only emerged in the past few years. They carry the film from beginning to end, never making a false move that would make the audience question their actions. They also get strong support from Arkin as their on-screen dad, Collins as the tender Winston, and Spevack's utterly natural turn as Adams' son. Unfortunately, the usually likable Steve Zahn is wasted as Adams' one-time boyfriend, and veteran Paul Dooley (Sixteen Candles) is barely in the movie.
Anchor Bay and Overture Films give Sunshine Cleaning a perfectly acceptable DVD package. The baked look of New Mexico -- with emphasis on browns and sepias -- is rendered beautiful in the 2.40:1 anamorphic print. Very few visual anomalies were detected, and black levels were sharp. If you don't care for widescreen, Anchor Bay has included a full frame print as well. The songs, dialogue, and natural sounds are easily heard in 5.1 Surround track, although an alternate Spanish track is also provided. Subtitles are available in both languages.
As for extras, there are two good ones: a commentary with Holley and producer Glenn Williamson, and the 14-minute featurette "A Fresh Look at a Dirty Business." The commentary is a decidedly low-key affair, but both speakers keep talking. The featurette will appeal to anyone who wants a more inside look at the business of biohazard cleaning, and thus is more than accessible. The real disappointment when it comes to the extras is the lack of insight from Adams and Blunt, who get very brief interviews. Jeffs is completely absent, as are some deleted scenes mentioned during the commentary.
Flaws aside, Sunshine Cleaning is a quiet delight, bolstered by a mostly winning cast and an outré set of characters. While the film does suffer from dangling story threads at the end, it entertains in spite of itself and provides something fresh in almost every scene. Give the film a chance, and you may just enjoy it.
Adams and Blunt are free to go, and the film is found not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2009 Christopher Kulik; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* NPR: The Business Of Cleaning Up After Tragedy