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Sunday, August 9, 2009

SUNSHINE CLEANING -- DVD review by porfle

From the looks of it, I thought this was going to be some sappy lightweight comedy or something, but it turned out to be right up my alley. Why? Because I'm a little twisted, and so is SUNSHINE CLEANING (2008), a cockeyed but wonderfully emotional comedy-drama about two sisters who find themselves in the business of cleaning up blood-splattered death scenes.

Amy Adams is dazzling as Rose Lorkowski, a former head cheerleader and prom queen who now runs a cleaning service while trying to cope with her intelligent but difficult son, Oliver (Jason Spevack), and flighty, irresponsible little sister Norah (Emily Blunt), whom she had to help raise after their mother's death. Rose is still "dating" former high school quarterback Mac (Steve Zahn), now a cop, even though he's married and has a second child on the way. When Oliver is expelled from school for "licking", Rose must think of a way to earn enough to afford to send him to a private school. Mac suggests, during one of their illicit motel room trysts, that she try the lucrative world of crime and trauma scene cleanup.

The funniest scenes occur as novices Rose and Norah bumble their way through their first jobs in this bloody and often downright disgusting profession. They scrape gore off the walls with toothbrushes and kitchen cleaner, toss bio-hazardous materials into dumpsters, and more often than not have to clean up their own barf along with everything else. Gradually, though, with the friendly guidance of Winston (Clifton Collins Jr., TRAFFIC), a one-armed model builder who runs the store where they buy their supplies, they start to get a tad more professional.

They also begin, inadvertently, to get more personally involved with the survivors. Rose sits with a suddenly-widowed elderly woman outside her home and comforts her until someone comes to pick her up. Norah, discovering a ribbon-bound stack of old photographs at the scene of a woman's suicide, tracks down her daughter Lynn (Mary Lynn Rajskub, "Mr. Show") who works at a blood bank. This leads to a tentative lesbian relationship as the two troubled women reach out to one another, discovering an emotional common ground that draws them together.

Of course, just when the sisters think they've found the magic key to post-mortem success, things start to go wrong. Rose finally makes the amazing deduction that her relationship with Mac is a dead-end and that she may very well officially be a failure in life. Norah finally gives Lynn those photographs and reveals the reason for their first meeting, and Lynn doesn't take it well. Worst of all, something disastrous happens on the job (it's Norah's fault, of course) which threatens to ruin them both on a financial and personal level. But while all of this stuff is going wrong, other things are starting to go right in ways that aren't as immediately evident.

Director Christine Jeffs makes the most of Megan Holley's well-written screenplay with a lean style and a crackling pace that doesn't let up. The film's tone remains consistent throughout, even when the comedy gives way to some pretty dramatic and emotional scenes. Jeffs has a light, naturalistic touch that keeps the heavier stuff from getting as maudlin as it might have been in other hands--both the small tragedies and the life-affirming triumphs are just parts of the story's texture as they would be in real life.

The cast is so good that their characters come alive. Jason Spevack as the inquisitive, introspective Oscar is one of those spooky-good child actors who can hold his own with an old veteran like the great Alan Arkin, who plays Rose and Norah's enterprising dad, or Clifton Collins Jr. as the likable and dependable Winston. Steve Zahn plays Mac with an air of detachment suitable to his character, who will never commit to Rose. Making brief appearances are the wonderful Paul Dooley as a used car salesman and Robert Redford's daughter Amy as Mac's pregnant wife. As Lynn, Mary Lynn Rajskub has that same quirky, hesitant quality that she always brought to her comedy roles and it works well here. Amy Adams does a brilliant job of fully inhabiting the character of Rose and it's fascinating just to watch her use that expressive face so well. Emily Blunt is equally good as Norah, gradually revealing the scared little lost girl beneath the gangly, clumsy exterior.

The DVD image and Dolby 5.1 surround sound are good. The movie can be watched in either 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen or full frame. Bonus features include a commentary track with writer Megan Holley and producer Glenn Williamson, a cool featurette called "A Fresh Look at a Dirty Business"--in which two women who actually do this for a living talk about their profession and how well the film portrays it--and a theatrical trailer.

I judged this DVD by its cover and thought it was going to be just another chick-and-wimp flick. But when it opened with a gory shotgun suicide in a sporting goods store, I was forced to readjust my expectations. And when it took the interesting turn of exploring who has to clean up after such an event and what the job must be like for them, I was hooked. I would recommend SUNSHINE CLEANING to anyone, because it isn't just a silly comedy, a sappy melodrama, or a life-affirming feelgood fix. Well, it is life-affirming, but, in a weird way, it's also death-affirming. Does that make sense?

Buy it at
Sunshine Cleaning DVD
Sunshine Cleaning [Blu-ray]

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