Anyone who saw “Little Miss Sunshine” will feel a lot of the same buttons being pushed in “Sunshine Cleaning.” From the title to the blandly generic Western setting to the sight of Alan Arkin pairing off with a little kid, this new entry from the same production shingle, Big Beach, forces comparison to its wildly successful predecessor and comes up short in all departments. Two of the most appealing new actresses on the scene today, Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, make the film eminently marketable, but no one should expect “Sunshine” B.O. lightning to strike twice.
Although it’s a bit of a stretch to accept women as winning as these two sisters being so desperate for livelihoods and decent men, Rose (Adams) and Norah (Blunt) can both feel life passing them by. Rose, once the most popular girl in high school, has a 7-year-old son named Oscar (Jason Spevack) and works as a maid.
Younger Norah is the edgier one, a hard partier who lives with dad Joe (Arkin), an old guy still hustling goofy financial schemes. Everyone in the family is short-tempered, their frayed nerves stemming from the perceived lack of prospects living on the lower end of the Albuquerque food chain.
Rose’s (married) lover is savvy local cop Mac (Steve Zahn), and, when he mentions how much money can be made in the unsavory specialized business of crime scene cleanup, Rose puts all the gumption and energy she’s got left into getting such an enterprise off the ground. Literally holding their noses, they make a tidy sum from an initial mop-up after a motel shooting, and, despite lack of certification, they’re in business.
Circumstances of their assorted jobs are passably amusing, as Rose attacks them with roll-up-her-sleeves straightforwardness, while Norah can never quite disguise her squeamishness. In the crime cleanup biz, the big paydays come when you land on insurance companies’ lists of contacts, and Rose commits their little company to this goal.
It’s in the assorted subplots of Megan Holly’s script that the project’s self-consciously calculated quirkiness rubs the wrong way. Arkin does nearly the identical blunt-talking, lovably cranky shtick he performed to such effect in “Little Miss Sunshine,” as he tries to instruct young Oscar in the ways of the mercantile world. Rose contends with the twin humiliations of conducting her affair in a cheap motel and feeling like such a failure compared to the women she once lorded it over in school.
For her part, Norah is particularly haunted by the death of her mother at an early age and, as part of her search of answers, enters into an ill-motivated relationship with an older woman.
Director Christine Jeffs, who previously helmed “Rain” and “Sylvia,” tries to strike a balance between the yarn’s dark currents and offbeat comedy, but the result is often uneasy, with the humor receding as things progress.
Still, the film is in good measure saved by the leads, especially Adams, who proves once again what a sparkling, irresistible screen presence she has. So energizing and uplifting is she that considerable interest attends the test of her ability to perform scenes of doubt and despair (she can), and no matter her character’s previous decade of drudge work, Adams leaves no doubt that Rose will find a way to prevail in the end.
Blunt has the second banana role in that Norah goes along for the ride that her sister prescribes, but she’s a good comic foil in her scenes with Adams and comes more into her own in interludes with other characters.
Most eye-catching supporting turn comes from low-key work by Clifton Collins Jr. as a sympathetic cleaning supplies store clerk who is willing to watch little Oscar.
Shot in New Mexico, pic has OK production values.