Christine Jeffs' Sunshine Cleaning is one of those adorable dysfunctional family indies that has kept the Sundance Film Festival in business for so many years. And, as you might expect, this well-observed serio-comedy suffers from an underdeveloped and contrived storyline while sporting an incredibly appealing cast. This time the winsome leads are played by Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, plucky sisters who don't look anything alike yet effortlessly convince you that they are, indeed, siblings. And, hey, wouldn't you know it, Alan Arkin plays their eccentric dad — he was so charming in Little Miss Sunshine (... and The Slums of Beverley Hills and a half-dozen other similar flicks) that the producers had to ask him back for an encore performance. Heck, it's even got "sunshine" in the title.
Because we're in indie territory here, the inevitably delightful Adams tamps down her girly spunk as Rose, a single mom whose life peaked in high school when she led the cheerleading squad. Today Rose makes ends meet by cleaning houses, struggles to keep her misfit son in school, and frequently bails out her screw-up sister Nora (Blunt). She's also sleeping with her married high school boyfriend (Steve Zahn), who happens to be a local cop. When Rose's noncommittal sweetie suggests that she enter the lucrative world of crime-scene cleanup, she recruits her sister on this new entrepreneurial adventure. Of course, this being a scruffy "noncommercial" production, things don't go quite the way Rose expected.
More amusing than funny and continually in danger of stepping into a big pile of maudlin, Megan Holley's earnest but uneven script is a middlebrow mélange of family loyalty, childhood loss and economic hardship. There are insightful moments and strong psychological undercurrents running through the film but, no matter which way you slice it, once again, we're treated to a tale about the importance of finding one's worth.
The terrific performances of Adams and Blunt almost make Sunshine Cleaning work; not only do the actresses connect as sisters who both love and endlessly frustrate one another, they nail the broken-down casual acceptance of their lower-class status. Adams in particular, convinces as the emotionally adrift but fiscally responsible sibling, deflating her sunny disposition and sharpening the edges of her chirpy voice to create a flawed but sympathetic woman.
Unfortunately, Holley, who seems to understand the real world challenges of her characters' lives, fumbles the comedic possibilities of their situation. Cleaning up after the deceased promises a minefield of profound and humorous possibilities. Six Feet Under shows us that. In contrast, Sunshine Cleaning never extends beyond a few vomit jokes and instances of overwrought empathy. Worse, Holly fashions a third act that completely lacks urgency or drama. Muddled earnestness simply isn't enough to carry us past a contrived and all-too-easy conclusion.
Tragically, the movie also gives short shrift to a pair of underwritten but potentially interesting supporting characters. Mary Lynn Rajskub (24) makes a brief appearance as a phlebotomist who offers Nora romantic opportunities, and Perry Smith (Capote) smolders as the quiet but patient one-armed owner of a janitorial supply shop. Both actors are so good that you almost wish the film were about them instead of the sisters.
Sunshine bursts with the kind of deeply personal, quirky affectations and one-of-a-kind characters that trumpet its independent status. Yet it feels so familiar. It's as if writer Holley and director Christine Jeffs made a list of all the elements that worked in previous Sundance triumphs, then fashioned their own Frankenstein monster of art-house melodrama, using the formidable talents of Adams, Arkin and Blunt to animate something that's little more than a heap of spare parts.
Showing at the Landmark Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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