For eons the subject of death has been represented in everything from painting and sculpture to books and films. The sheer volume of such macabre-related work is staggering. To put it simply, death has been done to death. Then along comes the delightful confection Sunshine Cleaning, the ironically titled film that deals with the unpleasant aftermath of death.
To term the movie so would actually do it a disservice because though the characters of Rose (Amy Adams) and Norah (Emily Blunt) clean up the messiness left behind by those who have died, the movie digs deeper and gives us a wonderful look at people who shake off the static of their lives and choose to live rather than merely exist. More after the jump:
When we first meet these sisters they’re stuck in a rut with no prospect for a better life. Rose is a single mother who cleans houses for the wealthy and is having an affair with her married high school sweetheart Mac (Steve Zahn) who has no intention of leaving his wife for her. Norah meanwhile has just been fired from yet another low-end job and is in no hurry to find work elsewhere. It’s actually Mac–a homicide detective–who gives Rose the idea to become a “biohazard remover” (a euphemism for one who cleans up after dead people). It’s a simple concept with rich rewards.
This story is rife with possibilities that could have gone in a thousand crazy directions yet the writer wisely chose to keep it as simple as possible. It’s a domestic drama dressed up in the guise of a quirky indie comedy. It’s an interesting dichotomy and both halves mesh beautifully. My only disappointment is that upon its theatrical release it was marketed as a comedy rather than the nuanced character study it really is. Broad comedy sells. Insightful character development does not.
I suppose I should disclose the fact that I requested to review Sunshine with every intention of hating it. I was fully prepared to write one cheerfully long vitriolic rant. The presence of Amy Adams alone made me want to vomit with rage. Imagine my shock to discover how much I loved it. . .and how much more I loved it upon a second viewing.
No disrespect to Emily Blunt (who stole every scene from Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, and how many actors can make such a claim?), but the real revelation here is Ms. Adams. For years critics have gushed about her work and I’ve always found her to be obnoxiously perky. I loathed her. But something about Sunshine Cleaning brought out an inner talent which was either dormant or that previous material she worked with would not allow her to utilize. Adams knew her character inside-out and was utterly disarming. Any expression crossed her painfully open face cut me to the core. Even when she smiled you can see the pain percolating underneath.
The only notable extra on this disc is a terrific 10 minute interview with a female pair of real biohazard removers. Their stories are touching, hilarious and just plain gross. They go through specific scenes in the film and pointed out everythong that was true to their unique (and apparently lucrative) profession. It’s definitely worth checking out.
There are many laugh-out-loud moments in Sunshine Cleaning, but viewers get much more than that. The dark humor may be off-putting for some but I’ve always enjoyed gallows humor.
I just can’t remember the last time I saw such a tender depiction of women (perhaps Ang Lee’s Sense & Sensibility way back in 1995?). Rose and Norah could easily have been loathsome characters but thanks to the combined talents of all involved this off-kilter pair of sisters was not only accessible and recognizable, but lovable as well. Their wounds and failings make them stronger, and we as an audience are better for having gone through it with them.
And memo to Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine), who plays the patriarch in this film: You are in grave danger of becoming the white man’s answer to Morgan Freeman, i.e. playing the same role over and over again. You may want to get a new agent.