Starring Amy Adams, Emily Blunt and Alan Arkin; Directed by Christine Jeffs; Rated R for language, disturbing images, some sexuality and drug use; 102 minutes
As overly ponderous and poetic as it might sound, SUNSHINE CLEANING is an unconventional kind of romance, in that it touts introspection and romance with oneself. The makers of “Little Miss Sunshine” deliver a colorful and cute (but not cutesy) character comedy, which, despite being about a woman who starts a crime scene cleaning service, manages to become a sparkly treat.
The film’s effectiveness is due in part to the natural, room-filling charisma of Oscar-nominated pixie Amy Adams (“Doubt”). She plays Rose, a single mom juggling dead-end jobs, a romance with married cop Mac (Steve Zahn) that’s going nowhere and her mischievous son, Oscar (Jason Spevack). We root for her like we did for Keri Russell in “Waitress,” only her personal reconciliation doesn’t come by an unexpected pregnancy, and all the pie is replaced by blood, sinew and other viscera.
By no means is this a one-woman show, though. Emily Blunt (“The Great Buck Howard”) stands out as Rose’s sister, Norah, and she adds a lot to the mix by portraying her as a floundering but hopeful girl who is starting to see that her big sister doesn’t have all the answers. Mac is a pretty shallow character, but he is engineered that way, to be more of an impediment that Rose must overcome than a living, breathing someone.
It is nice to see Alan Arkin follow up his Oscar-winning turn in “Little Miss Sunshine” with a role as Rose’s father, Joe, a slightly sad Willy Loman type trying to prove he’s not useless while playing proxy pop to the misunderstood Oscar (and Arkin’s character doesn’t have to die in this one). Clifton Collins Jr. (“Capote”), as cleaning supply seller Winston, is a good, gentle and platonic match for Rose, though making him a one-armed toy model enthusiast is a bit of a symbolic drubbing.
Norah’s foil is Lynn (Mary Lynn Rajskub), the daughter of a deceased woman that Rose and Norah cleaned up after, and whom Norah is befriending (in a very stalker-like way). The purpose of Rajskub’s character is made clear — to help Norah resolve her mother issues — but Lynn comes off as too cold and detached for us to care much about her. Only when there is the suggestion of an attraction between them does it seem like we might get to know her better.
First-time writer Megan Holley gives “Sylvia” director Christine Jeffs a solid template from which to work, even if it doesn’t have a conventional story. The action is all manifestations of Rose, rather than a grand convergence of outside forces; the obstacles in Rose’s way are all part of her. When she overcomes them, it’s extra satisfying, in that confronting oneself is the bravest battle one can fight (as overly ponderous and poetic as it might sound).•••
Robert Newton is the editor of North Shore Movies, and runs the Cape Ann Community Cinema in Gloucester, MA.