Anchor Bay // 2008 // 91 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // August 25th, 2009
Life's a messy business.
I don't like "quirky" indie films, those self-consciously weird flicks that take an otherwise trite idea and dress it up with some new superficial detail. It's like the worst of both worlds, the same-old stories of the mainstream meets the most obnoxious parts of indie-dom. Unsurprisingly, I was very skeptical of Sunshine Cleaning, a film about a dysfunctional pair of sisters who start a crime-scene cleaning business. Although the film ends up being a little too weird for its own good, the bizarre story and trite family dynamics are saved by fantastic performances in every role.
Rose Lorkowksi (Amy Adams, Junebug) is a struggling single mom who wants to get her son into a better school. Although she was a popular cheerleader in high school, now she contents herself with cleaning houses as a maid. When her lover, her boyfriend from high school who's now married with kids, mentions that crime-scene cleanup is a booming business, Rose recruits her wayward sister Norah (Emily Blunt, Charlie Wilson's War) to help her start the business.
Sunshine Cleaning is a film that lives and dies with its performances. Amy Adams and Emily Blunt both vie for most impressive performance in the film without ever seeming to be competing. Amy Adams brings her obviously brilliant comedic sensibilities to the role, with a series of perpetually well-timed looks and gestures that completely capture a capable woman brought to the edge of her abilities by a series of unlucky circumstances. It's a performance that shows just how thin the line is between comedy and tragedy, as several of the darker moments in the film elicit both laughter and sadness. Emily Blunt relies on more traditionally dramatic techniques as Norah, hiding her character's vulnerability behind sarcasm and apparent disinterest. It's a less immediately engaging performance, but as the film unfolds Norah gradually opens up, showing Blunt's depths as an actress.
The movie could have skated by on the strength of Adams and Blunt, but director Christine Jeffs went all out and secured top actors for every role. Alan Arkin plays Joe Lorkowski, the father of Rose and Norah. He's always scheming to make some money with silly things like selling stolen shrimp to local restaurants. He's obviously a bit broken by life, and Arkin manages to balance his character's optimistic schemes with the depths of his despair. Mary Lynn Rajskub plays the daughter of one of the victims at a crime scene the sisters have to clean up, and her character is a bit mysterious and obviously interested in Norah. Rajskub brings a sly humor and genuine passion to her portrayal, making her fun to watch. The men in Rose's life don't get a whole lot of attention, but Steven Zahn as her lover Mac, and Clifton Collins Jr. as Winston the kindly shopkeeper both provide appropriate characterizations.
There's also very little to complain about where this Blu-ray disc is concerned. The technical presentation is just this side of flawless. with an amazing video transfer that clearly and cleanly captures the film with almost nothing to complain about. The audio suffers a little by comparison, but for a dialogue-driven drama, that's not terribly surprising. That said, the track is crystal clear and the dialogue easy to follow.
Extras are a little thin, but what's here is good. They kick off with a commentary track featuring writer Megan Holley and producer Glenn Williamson. They discuss all the usual suspects, from writing through release with candor and humor. Considering it's the main extra it does an admirable job giving background on the movie. The other extra is a featurette that covers the real-life aspects of the crime-scene cleanup business. It's an interesting peek at one of the quirkier aspects of the film.
Sunshine Cleaning belongs squarely in the realm of fantasy. Although the individual elements, like the cleaning service and the family dynamics, all ring true but somehow their total is less than the sum of their parts. Everything just works out a little perfectly (or goes wrong in just the right way) so it can be difficult to stomach parts of the film. I totally understand that sometimes fantasy can shed light onto real emotions and situations, but when the line between realism and fantasy is blurred as ineffectively as it is sometimes in Sunshine Cleaning it can make the characters and situations hard to sympathize with because even though we see some of ourselves in the lives of Rose and Norah, there are simply too many oddities to make it totally compelling.
My earlier comments about quirky still stand, and honestly I'm wondering why the sisters needed to start a crime-scene cleaning business. It's an idea simply brimming with possibility for black-as-sin comedy, and I feel like it's totally wasted in this flick. Don't get me wrong, there are a few funny moments, and Amy Adams certainly wrings quite a bit of humor out of the various sights and smells of the dead, but it still feels gimmicky, like the cleanup plot was used as something sensationalistic to get people in the door. It's not a bad choice, but there could have been so much more use for it thematically with a little effort.
Considering the quality of the acting on display here, I'd have loved to get some input from the actors in the extras on this disc. Certainly what's here covered the film's production, but I think Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Alan Arkin, and Mary Lynn Rajskub would all have very interesting things to say about appearing in a low-budget comedy/drama with such a strange plot.
Sunshine Cleaning is a solid comedy/drama hybrid with an absolutely stellar cast. Although the crime-scene elements of the film may be dramatically underdeveloped (while also grossing some viewers out), the acting and character development save an otherwise too-clever script from itself. Although it could use a few more extras, this is a very solid Blu-ray and worth at least a rental for fans of independent drama.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R