Sunshine Cleaning opens Friday in select theaters
Sunshine Cleaning is a pleasant drama about Rose (Amy Adams), a maid and single mom, who coaxes her sister Norah (Emily Blunt) into helping her start her own business cleaning up crime scenes.
Yesterday, before I'd seen it, I was describing what I knew of the plot to a coworker who hadn't heard of the film. "I bet they find a clue that the police overlooked, and they solve a crime together," he said. That sounded just plain terrific—Adams and Blunt as the Hardy Girls! Alas, I knew it wasn't to be, and there was really no way for Sunshine Cleaning to emerge from the shadow of this wonderful, alternate version of itself that my coworker had created, a crime caper in which two smart, attractive actresses play amateur sleuths.
As it is, the movie is appealing and out of the ordinary when it focuses on Rose and Norah's struggle to get their startup off the ground. Rose learns that crime scene cleanup is a lucrative racket, and enlists Norah, a Vans-wearing late sleeper who says "dude" a lot, to get in on the ground floor with her. As a maid, Rose has some experience cleaning up after pool parties and rich people, but for the most part, she and Norah wing it, initially cleaning blood out of shower stalls with bleach spray and a toothbrush, arguing about who should scrub and who should wipe. Their sisterly bickering and contentious friendship is fun to watch, especially if you enjoy the friendly conflict between a prim, businesslike square and a beer-slinging slacker. There's nothing to wring out of this dynamic that hasn't been done, but Adams and Blunt inhabit it well.
It's fitting that my coworker's comment about a very different kind of movie colored my viewing, because the movie has ample opportunities to chase better storylines than it does. Rose and Norah dispose of a bloody mattress, visit a specialty cleaning products shop, try to figure out what licenses they need, and rush to accident sites to pick up jobs. I think if director Christine Jeffs and writer Megan Holley (or their producers) realized how good this stuff was, they could have built their whole movie on it. There's a tantalizing throwaway line about what competitors think of Rose and Norah ("two girls poaching jobs"), but instead of developing that possible narrative arc, the film builds its climax around Rose's decision about whether or not to attend a fellow ex-cheerleader's baby shower. It would be far more engaging to watch Rose rub elbows with hardened veterans of her niche market than it is to watch suburban ditzes sip Chardonnay.
A third-act rift and tentative reconciliation between the sisters is a drag, and a backstory about the mother they lost to suicide is shoehorned in, attempting to lend gravitas to their willingness to get so close to death. Sunshine Cleaning suffers from superfluous side stories involving Rose and Norah's father (Alan Arkin), and an awkward friendship between Norah and an introverted nurse (Mary Lynn Rajskub) that distract from its better bits. It's too polite a movie to actively dislike, but too overwhelmed by its own blandness to recommend. Still, Adams and Blunt make good (if not totally believable) onscreen sisters, so I'll keep my fingers crossed for Sunshine Cleaning 2, when Rose and Norah team up to moonlight as private detectives.