Once the high school cheerleading captain who dated the quarterback, Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams) now finds herself a thirty something single mother working as a maid. Her sister Norah, (Emily Blunt), is still living at home with their dad Joe (Alan Arkin), a salesman with a lifelong history of ill-fated get rich quick schemes. Desperate to get her son into a better school, Rose persuades Norah to go into the crime scene clean-up business with her to make some quick cash. In no time, the girls are up to their elbows in murders, suicides and other specialised situations. As they climb the ranks in a very dirty job, the sisters find a true respect for one another and the closeness they have always craved finally blossoms.
If you were of a cynical mind, you could be tempted to think the producers of Sunshine Cleaning were aiming to ape their previous hit, Little Miss Sunshine, with many of the same ingredients: crusty grandpa Alan Arkin, precocious kid, battered old van, setting in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Sunshine in the title.
That may be a tad unfair, although comparisons are inevitable — and in this case, beside the point. In tone and spirit and with different directors and writers involved, the two movies take very divergent paths. Sunshine Cleaning is much darker, far less exuberant and not as compelling. It’s not difficult to see why the original Sunshine grossed nearly $60 million in the US, boosted by Oscars for Arkin and the original screenplay, while the later film has brought in less than $13 million.
Still, any movie with Amy Adams and Emily Blunt as the lead characters is worth watching, and the premise is highly original: two wayward sisters launch a business cleaning up the bloody aftermath of crime scenes, and in the process manage to fix the messes in their own lives.
Amy plays Rose, a struggling single mother who cleans houses while she studies for a real estate license. She’s having an affair with married cop Mac (Steve Zahn), her high school sweetheart, although she knows he’ll never leave his wife. Emily is her younger sister Norah, a dope-smoking slacker who can’t hold down a regular job and lives with their father Joe (Arkin), a salesman who dreams up a succession of get-rich-quick schemes, all doomed to fail.
When Rose’s son Oscar (Jason Spevack), who appears to have ADD or something similar, is kicked out of school and an expensive private school seems the only option, the sisters start their own company, Sunshine Cleaning. Despite the icky aspects of the job, the women find redemption in being able to comfort and help relatives of the deceased, and business flourishes until Norah screws up. As Rose explains at an excruciating baby shower to some of her former school friends, now all smug and well-to-do, she and Norah enter people's lives after a tragedy and "make it better."
Although Adams looks a little too young to have a seven-year-old and Blunt is far older than her character, both are terrific. Mostly sans make-up, Adams exudes quiet desperation and tenacity, while Blunt is initially hard and feisty until the audience realises she’s haunted by her mother’s suicide.
Arkin could play the lovably cranky Joe in his sleep but brings to the role glimpses of kindness and humanity. Zahn is excellent as the adulterous Mac: his look of incomprehension when Rose tells him she’s breaking off the affair is priceless.
There are impressive cameos from Clifton Collins Jr. (who played the killer Perry Smith in Capote), as a sympathetic, one-armed cleaning supplies store clerk who somehow manages to build model aeroplanes; and Mary Lynn Rajskub as the daughter of a suicide victim whom Norah tracks down.
New Zealand-born director Christine Jeffs, who elicited a memorable performance from Gwyneth Paltrow in Sylvia, mostly strikes the right balance between the plot’s dark under-currents and the sunny, offbeat comedy, although there are a few abrupt, jarring changes in mood. The screenplay is by first-timer Megan Holley, whose prior career, according to the production notes, involved working with crack-addicted rats and editing highway safety videos.