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Sunshine Cleaning, 2009 (Home Video Review)

Clouded Judgment

Here’s another movie I avoided like the plague when it was in theatres, and it’s comforting to know that my instincts are sharp as ever. Sunshine Cleaning is that form of unmarketable film that is half crappy drama, half laugh-free comedy known as the Independent Film; I know not all indies are like this, but there have been enough bad ones in recent years to warrant instant skepticism—much like romantic comedies.

I can’t think of another film that is so well acted and so poorly written. Sunshine Cleaning is the story of Rose (Amy Adams), a single mother and maid who balances raising her son, Oscar (Jason Spevack), with her father, Joe (Alan Arkin), and sleeping with a married police officer named Mac (Steve Zahn). Rose’s misfit sister, Norah (Emily Blunt), lives with Joe because she can’t hold down a job long enough to live on her own. On Mac’s advice—and with his money—Rose opens Sunshine Cleaning, a crime scene cleanup service that pays very well. This is a fine premise, and the cast is more than up for the challenge, but writer Megan Holley mistakenly injects about five additional plotlines into the story and handles all of them poorly.

Half the problem is that none of the characters is redeemed by movie’s end. Nearly all of them are people who’ve fallen on hard times due to lives full of bad decisions and an overall lack of smarts. For example, when Rose and Norah visit a store that specializes in industrial cleaning supplies, the clerk asks them a series of questions regarding their license and the various processes they use to remove hazardous materials from crime scenes. The women are caught completely off guard, and I found it inconceivable that they would have done absolutely no research beyond slapping a logo on a used van and buying a few bottles of bleach and Windex. The scene is played as a meet-cute between Rose and the clerk (a one-armed model-maker named Winston, played wonderfully by Clifton Collins, Jr.), but there’s nothing cute about that kind of ignorance in the Internet age.

This scene also establishes what could have been a great conflict between Sunshine Cleaning and one of the other professional cleanup companies; a worker comes in, complaining about a startup that’s been “stealing” jobs. Rose and Norah listen worriedly while hiding in an aisle, emerging after the guy leaves. Fortunately for them—less so for we, the audience—the issue is never brought up again.

Another example of the film’s penchant for hinting at plotlines and then refusing to do anything with them involves Oscar’s getting kicked out of school. Rose gets called to the principal’s office and learns that her son has been spreading the story that Norah told him the night before; the last in a long line of bizarre offenses, the principal recommends Oscar be put on drugs. Rose refuses, and tells Oscar that they’ll try private school. She assures him that he’s just fine; it’s the faculty’s problem that they don’t understand him.

Fair enough. But Oscar continues to get into trouble throughout the film, and at no point do any of the adults discipline him; not even a simple, “Don’t do that.” Instead, we get tired inferences that Oscar is some kind of prodigy, as evidenced by an exchange with Grandpa that goes something like this:

“Are you bored in class?”


“Do you stare out the window a lot?”


“See? That’s a sign of genius.”

Or, it’s a sign you’re grandkid's a shithead. Now, I’m not for drugging up imaginative children, but the case for Oscar is flimsy at best.

The other half of the film’s problem is that it’s derivative of either bad sitcoms or bad parts of okay movies. Instead of delving into what it’s like to have to clean up after a murder or a suicide, we get a scene where Rose and Norah must carry a bodily-fluid-stained mattress out to a dumpster; it’s really heavy and awkward to maneuver, and I’ll give you one guess as to what happens before they make it to the trash. Then there’s the scene where Norah hangs from underneath some train tracks while the train rushes by overhead. It’s meant to showcase her rebellious inner turmoil; instead it demonstrates why she’s wholly unemployable (and lets us know she’s a huge Lost Boys fan).

I really wanted to like Sunshine Cleaning. Adams and Blunt—and even Arkin, who essentially plays a resurrected version of his Grandpa character from the terrible Little Miss Sunshine—are great in their misshapen roles. In fact, this appears to be a theme of Amy Adams’ career lately: starring in movies with a great premise and lousy execution (see Julie & Julia—better yet, don’t). I just wish the filmmakers had trusted that the adults who would show up for their small film would be savvy and hungry enough for grown-up entertainment that they wouldn’t feel the need to rely on sub-moron crutches.

The movie has been marketed as a cute indie film, but there’s nothing independent about it. Sunshine Cleaning caters to the same dumb herd that made The Final Destination the number one movie in America two weeks in a row. Talk about a crime.

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