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03.25.09

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Phaedra

Photograph by Lacey Terrell
DON'T MAID AWAY: Amy Adams (left) and Emily Blunt tackle some nasty spills in 'Sunshine Cleaning.'

Scrubbers

Amy Adams and Emily Blunt toil in the Land of Disenchantment in comic 'Sunshine Cleaning'

By Richard von Busack


STARTING with a suicide—a comedic one, in a sporting-goods store—the macabre Sunshine Cleaning maintains its comedic mood of loss and self-destruction to the end. The film emerged at the 2008 Sundance, and then it submerged, despite A-list stars Amy Adams and Emily Blunt.

In its present form, it appears badly trampled by studio executives with cold feet; the happy ending couldn't have been more trumped up if a game-show host wrote it. Odd that a movie about the job of cleaning would go so wrong, trying to clean up every loose end in the plot. And yet Sunshine Cleaning has some integrity even in its cut-up form. At its best, the film evinces that paradoxical quality one seeks in indie movies—that quality of being both loose and well built.

Part of what makes the film well built is the Barbara Ehrenreich factor. Sunshine Cleaning seems very knowing about pink-collar work. In Albuquerque, N.M., Rose (Adams) is the single parent of an odd boy, Oscar (Jason Spevack). Rose works for a Merrie Maids–like outfit. She also keeps company with Mack, a married plainclothes cop (Steve Zahn) whom she meets in motels. Her sister, Norah (Blunt), has repeatedly flunked out of any job more demanding than baby-sitting Oscar.

After a session at the motel, Mack, sort of lying around and thinking aloud, recalls the big money the biohazard cleaners got picking up the pieces of a suicide at the sporting-goods store. Rose decides she knows enough about scrubbing to do such a job, and she recruits the feckless Norah to help. They are aided by a kind industrial cleaning and supplies store owner named Winston (the Matt Dillonish Clifton Collins Jr., who played Perry Smith in Capote).

Cleaning up the vast ickiness of trailers and rented rooms, Adams and Blunt get to bounce off one another. And as it often does, the grossness gives way to pity—a pity that cancels out the girls' own self-pity. But when Rose starts to meet up with some of her fancy former pals from high school, they are not as impressed with her small business. Meanwhile, Norah decides to track down and stalk Lynn, the grownup child of one of their dead clients, after finding Lynn's photos in a trailer. But Lynn (Mary Jane Rajskub) has an agenda of her own.

Sunshine Cleaning does without conventional romance, and that's what I mean by integrity. Director Christine Jeffs is one of those tough female Anzac directors (Rain, Sylvia) I mentioned last week in connection with Half-Life. The film is strongly impressionistic; what one critic described as available-light filmmaking actually looks more like a motif: the colors of dried blood, pink concrete and the strange clutter of old people's homes. Here, New Mexico looks less like the land of enchantment than the land of existentialism.

The film has an outsider's skeptical view of settling down. From what's here, it looks as if the Lynn/Norah angle was where the romance was meant to be and this faced some editor's ax. The date Lynn and Norah go on together gets truncated right in the middle, as Norah is doing a session of "trestling"—clinging onto a railroad trestle as a train speeds overhead.

The angle of the Winston and Rose relationship is also left up in the air, which is more satisfying. The self-amused Winston has a hobby; when not selling cleaning supplies, he's building military model planes. This isn't easy, because he lost an arm under circumstances that we never learn, even though Oscar asks him how it happened—asks him bluntly, just like a little boy will. There is all sorts of backstory potential here. What a pleasure it is that director Jeffs decides to avoid it! Collins apparently has two arms in real life, but he looks more convincing than many fake amputees we get in the movies—he acts asymmetrical.

The independent cinema demands more backstories left up in the air. When we find out about Rose and Norah's childhood, it's unlikely as hell; you can practically hear a producer asking dumb questions like "Why does a girl as good-looking as Rose have such low self-esteem?" 

That Rose is too high-class for her surroundings should have been something else that just happened, but we're given an unlikely backstory about Rose and Norah's missing mom, a story that would have been better left up in the air, just like the story of Winston's arm.

If Rose and Norah's mom had just lit out for the territories, it would have suited what we know about the girls' father, Joe (Alan Arkin): an aged failure in one dodgy business after another, from snack products to past-their-prime shrimp. As always, Arkin looks so fit that he'll probably get a shovel and bury us all someday. One of the tangy corners of the movies is that Arkin's Joe breaks a promise to Oscar and no one manifests any outrage; he's been breaking promises for a long time.

The good thing about the rewriting and reshooting work on Sunshine Cleaning is that the renovation all shows; you can tell exactly where the compromises were made, know the obvious cowardly reasons why they were done, and we can overlook them in the bigger scheme of things.


Movie Times SUNSHINE CLEANING  (R; 102 min.), directed by Christine Jeffs, written by Megan Holley, photographed by John Toon and starring Emily Blunt and Amy Adams, plays at selected theaters and opens March 27 at the Camera Cinemas.


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