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Sunshine Cleaning has a story, certainly, with a handful of winningly familiar plot points. But Sunshine Cleaning is not about its story. Rather, the story is a device for clearing uncertainties out of the viewer's way, so that the sense of a certain quality of life can fill the theatre. And although the story ends happily enough for its two heroines — Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams) gets a proper van for her cleanup business, while her sister Norah (Emily Blunt) gets Dad's car and a road out of town — Sunshine Cleaning is still a movie about soldiering on, not as far from Le notte di Cabiria as a comedy set in Albuquerque might seem to be. Rose may not be broke, and she may not even be alone, but at the end of Sunshine Cleaning she has done what Fellini's heartbreaking prostitute does, and come to terms with the world around her.
The true climax of Sunshine Cleaning doesn't look like one. Rose, dressed quite unlike the roomful of former high school classmates, decides to leave a baby shower even though, as the hostess complains, "we're just starting the games." In one blow, Rose realizes both that she doesn't belong at this party and that she doesn't want to belong at it, either. She's sorry to have ducked her job in order to attend, even before she is confronted with the catastrophic fallout of her decision. Getting dressed for the party — overdressed, actually — Rose takes a call from a new client who needs to have a house cleaned right away — and "right away" usually means that somebody died in the place. Rose recognizes that she ought to scratch the party, but she is still overpowered by a longing to impress the girls who used to look up to her when she was the head cheerleader. She wants to convince them that her life has not been all downhill since high school. Whether or not going to the party is irresponsible from a business point of view, it's just what Rose needs in order to get over her feelings of inferiority. When one of the moms at the shower passes around treats — morsels of melted chocolate served in disposable diapers — Rose's sense of inferiority is flushed away. The moms are fatuous cows; she, Rose, has a career.
Sunshine Cleaning is not about how Rose gets into the hazmat disposal racket. All the complications of that story — interesting in another film, perhaps, but not in this one — are smoothed away. In a more "realistic" movie, Rose and Norah would never get their third cleaning job; in one way or another (one almost hopes) they'd be shut down by observant authorities. Director Christine Jeffs and writer Megan Holley may have neorealismo in mind, but they don't want to make bicycle thieves of the Lorkowski sisters. Instead, the blood, gunk, and jetsam of sudden death yield to their energetic scrubbing and hauling. The filmmakers are particularly aware that Sunshine Cleaning doesn't just tidy up houses and apartments whose inhabitants have perished from heart attacks or gunshot wounds. It cleans up after the American lower middle class, in all its kitschy disorder. It's not so much that Rose accepts, at the end, that she belongs in the lower middle class. Rather, she stops wishing that lower middle class life didn't exist.
As Rose, Ms Adams plays a character who lives the life that, one senses, Ms Adams herself would be leading if she were not a movie star, and stuck in a small American city. Rose is still pretty, but her bloom has faded, and she has not yet developed the courage to present herself as a mature woman. Ms Adams shows us that Rose's way of responding to an exhausting life with the perky enthusiasm of a teenaged cheerleader makes life twice as exhausting as it needs to be, but Rose won't let go. Watching her would be almost as exhausting if Ms Adams didn't make it clear that Rose likes to live in the future, where she visualizes herself as a powerful woman. We are invited to laugh at her, but there are few actresses as skilled as Ms Adams is at yielding her face to the battle of conflicting emotions (Meryl Streep, of course, and Marisa Tomei come to mind.) While Rose gets into comic scrapes, she is not funny herself.
The clown in the family is Norah. An intelligent screw-up, Norah can't take life in Albuquerque seriously enough to make an effort. The town is a prison that she lacks the wherewithal to leave. She smokes, she drinks — but mostly, she snoozes. She never seems more than three blinks away from a satisfying nap. The measure of her irresponsibility is take when she tells her nephew, Rose's little boy, Oscar (Jason Spevack), totally perverse fairy tales; and the stories inspire acting out that gets Oscar thrown out of school. But her unsustainable equilibrium is broken by the discovery of a packet of photographs, showing a girl growing up, in a house that she and Rose are cleaning. It doesn't take long for Norah to track down this girl, Lynn (Mary Lynn Rajskub) and, too shy to tell her why she has done so, to pretend to befriend her. There is a mini-lesson for the audience in Norah's encounter with Lynn: the movies invite us to believe that we know how characters feel deep down. Ms Jeffs and Ms Holley remind us that this sort of speculation can go disastrously askew in real life. Only when Lynn storms off, furious and humiliated, do we notice that Norah can't be bothered to maintain a boyfriend-type relationship.
It's Rose who has the problem boyfriend — a married man. Even before she dumps the cop whose wife insults her at a gas station, we know who's next in her life: one-armed Winston (Cliff Collins), the guy who runs the cleaning-supply store. Mr Collins's performance is every bit as startlingly distinct as his costars'. Hungry for the affection of a woman like Rose, but too sensible of his handicap to swagger, Winston flashes reassuring smiles and gives Rose tips on setting up her business. He even babysits Oscar. Perhaps Rose and Winston will never be lovers, but Winston will at least be a brother. He is an anchor in the soundness of the real world that the rest of her family — her get-rich-quick-scheme bedazzled father (Alan Arkin), Norah, and her suicide mother — can't quite accept.
It is easy to see Albuquerque, as represented in Sunshine Cleaning, as a stand-in for every provincial town in America — lackluster and boring — but it would be a mistake to compare it unfavorably with the big coastal cities in which films are more normally made. Life can be just as drab in Jamaica and Reseda; only, the barriers to entry in the hazmat business are probably much higher. Alburquerque is a much better place for the inadvertent entrepreneur. (2 April 2009)
Copyright (c) 2009 Pourover Press