It's not a bad idea for an indie film: Two sisters, still dealing as adults with the aftermath of their mother's suicide when they were children, are stuck in dead-end jobs. Then one of them gets the idea to stop cleaning rich people's houses for a living, and to start a business cleaning up crime scenes instead. That's the basic idea behind Christine Jeffs' Sunshine Cleaning, starring Amy Adams, Emily Blunt and Alan Arkin.
Adams plays Rose, head cheerleader back in the glory days of high school, now stuck raising her son Oscar (Jason Spevack) alone. Rose cleans houses for a living, a job she's not crazy about, and she's having an affair with her high school boyfriend, Mac (Steve Zahn), who likes Rose enough to have sex on the side, but not enough to leave his wife for her. Her sister Norah (Blunt) lives with their father Joe (Arkin), who's always got a scheme going for finally getting rich. When Oscar keeps getting in trouble in school, Rose decides she needs to make more money so she can put him in private school, and cleaning houses for a living isn't going to get her there.
Mac tells Rose that there are people who clean up crime scenes, and that they get paid a lot more money to do that than she makes cleaning houses. With Mac tossing her a few referrals, Rose starts her own business, Sunshine Cleaning, and talks Norah into working with her. Cleaning up decomposed bodies and blood isn't quite like cleaning up someone's fancy house, though, and Rose quickly learns that they have to do things right to be taken seriously. She gets some help and advice from Winston (Clifton Collins Jr.), a one-armed man who owns a cleaning supply store, and pretty soon Rose and Norah have a growing business. Of course, it wouldn't be a comedy without some errors of judgment and a funny bits (and what would a movie about removal of dead bodies be without a little slapstick humor, right?), so we have some of that in there too.
The film is not without its problems: the script sags in a few places, and the editing could be a bit snappier. Also, the lighting is atrocious -- I get that they were going for using natural light, but the film just doesn't look pretty at all, and even the usually glowing Adams looks sallow. Arkin turns in his usual reliably solid performance, but seems to be channeling a bit too much from his character from Little Miss Sunshine (I suspect that's more from how the character was written than from Arkin, but not having read the script, it's hard to be sure). Still, he has some moments that are both poignant and humorous, particularly in his scenes with young Spevack.
On the plus side, both Adams and Blunt are solid performers with a good sense of comedic timing. Adams does well at playing characters who are both somewhat tragic and yet still perky and hopeful, and she does a fine job here as a 30-something woman, once at the top of her circle's social strata, who now finds herself barely clinging to the bottom rung with whatever dreams she once had for her life left far behind. Blunt, who's been one of my favorite up-and-coming actresses since I first saw her in My Summer of Love, has a solid turn as the unreliable younger sister. Also worth noting is a great performance by Mary Lynn Rajskub (aka, Chloe from 24), as a woman whose mother's body was one of the sister's cleaning jobs.
Sunshine Cleaning wasn't the best film I saw at Sundance, but it certainly wasn't the worst. It does have its flaws, but overall it's a cute film that fans of Adams and Blunt will enjoy.