Friday, September 18, 2009

Sunshine Cleaning (2009)

This one seemed to fly under radar when it was released earlier this year. It's sort of an indie comedy/drama in the mold of something like Juno (I assume, still haven't seen it), Little Miss Sunshine (same producers, both feature Alan Arkin as an eccentric old person), and lots of movies I'm sure I've never heard of since, unlike Juno or Little Miss Sunshine, they didn't manage to find an audience (or even a theater). Sunshine Cleaning sort of skipped the whole finding an audience thing too, but I think it deserved better. Also, they managed to include a song from a not too well known band that I really like over the opening credits (Golden Smog's "cure for this"). Off to a good start.

As soon as I hit my thirties I started to reflect on my life, my choices, etc. Regrets started to seep in. I'm single, not exactly doing what I thought I'd be doing back in my twenties. When I was in my twenties I was way more careless, kept thinking things like "I still have time, blah blah blah". Now, I'm essentially dead. Well, of course that's not true. I still have time to achieve a few of my dreams....wait, think I'll just crack open a beer, maybe see what's on TV first. Whatever, my dreams can wait until tomorrow.

Anyway, that's basically the theme of this picture. Getting older, taking stock of your life, making changes. The movie centers around this Amy Adams like character named Rose. Thankfully, they got Adams to play the part. I'm not sure anyone else could have pulled it off. Rose is in her 30s, a single mother, working as a house cleaner, but not really too happy. You see, Rose was that girl in high school; You know, head cheerleader, dating the star quarterback, most likely to succeed, lost her virginity at 15, etc. Now, Rose is working a menial job while pretending to study for her real estate license. Instead of going to class, she meets up with Detective Steve Zahn at a hotel for some illicit affair-y type shit.

Also, there's Rose's sister named Nora (Emily Blunt) who is in her twenties, can't hold a job for more than five minutes, has lots of casual sex, and is one of those deadpan, dark haired, overly sarcastic type girls I'm not sure I'd want to date, which is a good thing since I think she comes out of the closet in this picture. Whatever, you know the type. Rose (in her 30s) takes her shitty job (apologies to all maids out there. let me say, shitty in the context of this movie) seriously. Nora doesn't. I can't say their father was a very good influence though. Joe is an old guy who tries to make money by peddling things (fancy corn, truckload of shrimp that he bought illegally) all across town. If you've seen an Arkin movie, you pretty much know the character. Doesn't swear like grandpa in Little Miss Sunshine though. Also, there's Rose's son, Oscar who is one of those slightly annoying, at first, movie kids but eventually he kinda grows on you.

The movie doesn't quite open like you'd expect. We got a business man, fidgeting with something in his pocket. Turns out it's a shell for a shotgun. He walks into a sporting goods store, asks to look at a 12 guage, then loads it, and blows his own head off. Later, Detective Zahn is investigating the suicide (it's pretty cut and dried) but he becomes fascinated by the cleaning crew that comes in and charges an arm and a leg. One guy over by the fishing poles makes a joke "he's over here too". So, Zahn, tells Rose, knowing she could use more money, that she ought to get in on that. He calls it a racket. At first, she shrugs it off. Then, something comes up, she needs money, her sister's broke and jobless, so together, they get in on it.

At first, they don't know what they're doing. They show up to another suicide scene (most of their calls are suicides) with windex and rags. Nora pukes. They throw a bloody mattress in a dumpster (illegal I guess) but not before Rose drops it and Nora falls on top of it (one of the few laugh out loud moments in this thing). They get better. They find out about this supply store which is run by this one armed guy named Winston. Winston is a quiet guy, but seems real nice. He tells them what they need and also that maybe they should think about getting certified. Clifton Collins Jr. is Winston and gives a wonderfully understated performance.

The movie progresses from one cleanup scene to the next while allowing us to get into the characters a little more. Meanwhile, Arkin continues to be a lousy influence but his hearts in the right place. In a fairly large contrivance Nora develops a friendship of lesbian-ish under(maybe, over)tones with one of the daughters of a suicide victim they cleaned up after. Also, Rose and Nora's mother killed herself. Meanwhile, Oscar gets kicked out of school for licking his teacher's leg. This movie is too loose, too cute to possibly work.

But it does. I think it can mostly be attributed to Amy Adams who once again takes a left field character and completely grounds her with unabashed sincerity. Rose reconnects with a high school friend who invites her to her baby shower. Rose wisely leaves when they start sampling melted chocolate out of diapers. That kind of life just ain't for her. I can't think of another actress who could make the scene work where she tries to talk to her dead mother over a CB radio. Or, the scene where she tells Winston "I'm good at getting men to want me. Not to date me...or to marry me, but just to want me" She's never less than completely compelling in a role that could have very easily been grating.

Nora's character, however, is somewhat problematic in that I've only known girls like her in the movies. Never met one in real life. Maybe I'm just in the wrong circles. Could have done without the scene where she goes "tressling", or burns down a house, or refers to her nephew as "l'il bastard" and then bought him a l'il bastard fake tattoo for his birthday. Despite all this, she provides a solid contrast to Rose's sunnier (but still brow beaten-ish) outlook. The movie doesn't really provide easy resolutions. The characters aren't necessarily in a much better place when it's over, but at least they're on the right track.


elmo said...

But was it directed by the Little Miss Sunshine people?

brian said...

Just looked it up. No, it's not. Has a similar feel though. To be honest, I'd watch this one again before Little Miss Sunshine. It's got Amy Adams.

Megmo Eskimo said...

Omg...Brian...this was a brilliant review of a bittersweet movie that I truly enjoyed. You were so spot on...this was such an under the radar movie; I wish more people had seen it. Amy Adams was fantastic in it. That scene you refer to ("I can get men to want me...") is heartbreaking. My only prob is that I feel that she plays the same person (herself!) in each role. But, as she always does (it's one of her strengths as an actor) she gave the character a vulnerabiltiy and a likeability...I was rooting for her ...if another actor had played her role, I might not have been. The guy who played Winston stole the movie. Alan Arkin was great, as he always is. I kept waiting for him to yell "Chicken. Why does it always have to be fucking chicken!" I also loved Emily Blunt in this (although I would probably watch her in anything). While this IS a character we have seen before, she does a great job straddling the fence between charisma and fuck-up. I got a great sense of her trying to find her place in the world. That's what I loved most about this film: no easy answers, trying to connect with one another, come to terms with their pain and past, stealing moments of joy, people struggling to find their way...very much like real life.

brian said...

What? Adams is a chameleon! In Underdog she was a dog (I think - still haven't seen that one) and in Enchanted, she played a cartoon princess in parts. Actually, in all seriousness, there are usually some subtle differences in her characters. Miss Pettigrew gives her the opportunity to play a sexually charged character. She's very capable of tugging at the heartstrings (Doubt, Junebug, Cruel Intentions 2) and also making you laugh (Pettigrew, Enchanted, Cruel Intentions 2). Maybe her range isn't on par with Merryl Streep but at least she sticks with what she does well. Too many actors try to overstretch themselves.

Megmo Eskimo said...

Out of everything I said - everything I praised your writing for, agreed with you on - you focus on how I said Amy Adams plays the same character??? You are too funny! Despite her lack of diversity in how she plays her characters, I still said that she was fantastic!! I never said that she was not funny or captivating. My ONLY small complaint is that while she has a myriad of roles, she plays each one the same way: sweet, perky, neurotic, vulnerable, fragile. At least the ones I've seen (Doubt, Enchanted, Sunshine Cleaning, Julie/Julia). This is not a knock on her acting, which is great. I just want to see some diversity, some range!