Sunshine Cleaning aspires to explore several meaningful ideas and themes: coming to grips with aging, failed ambitions, childhood trauma, the grieving process, the effects of being brought up in a single parent home, and the aftermath of violent deaths. However, the film suffers from a profound lack of focus; it seems unable to decide which issues are paramount in its characters' beleaguered lives. As a result, it comes across as a sentimental grab bag, hoping every audience member will be able to relate to at least one of the many emotional distressers.
The film follows two sisters, Rose (Amy Adams) and Norah (Emily Blunt) who reside in a flyspeck desert town somewhere in the American West. This is where they have spent the entirety of their uneventful lives and where they will most likely die. Rose, a former teen queen, has fallen far since her high school glory days, and cleans houses to support her troublemaking son while continuing an affair with her married ex-boyfriend (Steve Zahn). Norah, on the other hand, is in her late twenties, gainfully unemployed and living with their dad, Joe (Alan Arkin). Though far from overachievers, the girls are motivated to start a lucrative crime scene cleanup business when Rose realizes she will have to send her son to an expensive private school due to his bad behavior -- and thus Sunshine Cleaning is born!
The first half of the film is entertaining -- a pleasant mix of dark comedy and realistic drama. The sisters bond and develop a sense of pride as they engage in the unsettling business of scrubbing blood off white walls and disposing of mattresses steeped in human bodily fluids. Through simple language they contemplate the strange afterglow present at scenes of death and brutality. If the film had continued along this track, it might have succeeded as an engrossing character study and maybe more. Sadly, it becomes hysterical-- filling its characters' lives with an abundance of emotional tribulations. We learn that the girls' mother committed suicide, Rose's son doesn't know his father, Joe (the dad) loses loads of cash with ludicrous get-rich-quick schemes, Norah might be a lesbian, etc. With all these new developments, the emotional thread is obscured: while the characters make the celluloid soppy with their tearful outbursts, the audience leaves the theater with dry eyes.
Of course, with such a stellar cast, one can expect decent performances. Everyone is good with Arkin, and, in particular, Adams as standouts. Though a trifle routine, Arkin plays his standard eccentric old coot with the usual self-assured zeal. His performance provides the majority of laughs and lifts the movie when it sinks into torrid melodrama. Adams plays Rose with a subtlety that rises above every other aspect of the film. While her character description sounds like a vengeful stereotype (a former head cheerleader who dated the star quarterback; now a poor, lonely single-mom), Adams transcends this. With masterful nuance she conveys Rose's underlying bitterness without ever breaking a frown--it is always carefully concealed behind a smile and contained by her perky nature.
It is always a shame when a film squanders its potential. For director Christine Jeffs this appears to be a recurring problem. Her last effort, Sylvia (2003), also had a strong beginning before it careened into tiresome melodrama. It seems Jeffs wants to explore the complicated emotional landscape of intriguing female characters but finds herself overwhelmed. She lacks the focus and temperance that is necessary to create a viable, relatable creation.