In my fifth grade Catholic school classroom, art class taught by Sister Carol was not a subject characterized by exploration and expression of ideas. Rather, it was a subject I feared more than math due to the daunting projects that had to be executed with exact skill and precision. One particular project that haunted me was a Halloween-themed spider web. Using a grid, we had to loop yarn around and around to swirl in intricate patterns. Somehow my project emerged in a hopeless tangle of threads. And I can still hear the resounding thud as Sister Carol oh-so-casually flicked it in the trash.
Sunshine Cleaning for me was reminiscent of that tangle of threads, hopelessly entwined with no real shape or substance to the narrative.
Amy Adams stars as Rose Lorkowski, a former head cheerleader who works for a maid service and cleans the upscale suburban homes of her fellow cheerleaders now turned affluent soccer moms. She is having an affair with her old football star boyfriend, Mac (Steve Zahn) and struggling with the demands of being a single mother to her son, Oscar. After Oscar is poised to be kicked out of yet another school (for licking his teacher), Rose is inspired by Mac’s suggestion to start a crime scene clean-up service. She recruits her wacky sister, Rose (Emily Blunt), recently freed up when she is fired from yet another minimum wage job, to help her get her business started. Under the tutelage of the one-armed cleaning supply store owner, Winston (Clifton Colllins, Jr.) and her father’s (Alan Arkin) inspiration, the sisters begin to experience business success. However, dealing with the unfinished business of the deceased begins to have unforeseen emotional complications that spills over into their own lives.
Sunshine Cleaning could have easily emerged as a romantic comedy-drama about interesting people whose lives we as viewers are willing to explore — however, we never really get to experience their stories. For example, it’s hard to buy the beautiful and vivacious Amy Adams as a hard-luck case. Why has her life turned out this way? Rose’s fall from grace is just one story that never merits a close examination. Equally puzzling is her sister Norah’s seemingly screwed-up life. Her grief over the death of her mother and her fixation on the daughter of a dead client are interesting parallels that also never achieve any sort of resolution. Alan Arkin as Joe, the girls’ eccentric father with a seemingly endless stream of crackpot ideas, is sorely underutilized. He is hovering in the background of the film, on the verge of becoming a participant in the story, but never quite going beyond a casual observer.
Sunshine Cleaning has all of the elements of great film promise and I had looked forward to it with great anticipation. However, the narrative threads remain frustrated in a tangle of ambition. The stories of its engaging characters still remain to be unspooled.
Sunshine Cleaning is now playing at the Boardman’s Art Theater, Beverly and Savoy cinemas.
Runtime: 1 h 42 minutes — Rated R — Comedy